Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Turning Blue

Ooh! Ooh!

Anika Smith, the tankwoman in pink of the Discovery Institute is all excited that a Harvard professor has criticized evolutionary theory.

The fact that it is a professor of government, Harvey Mansfield, who has his own little problems with reality (having greeted Sarah Palin's choice as the anchor tied around John McCain's neck with "modified rapture" and having argued for a "mild affirmative action" for conservative professors at Harvard) doesn't bother her one bit. After all, he's from Haaarvaard!

Mansfield's criticism of evolutionary theory is a little strange. It comes in a "review" in Forbes (rapidly becoming the outlet of choice for evolution kooks) of a book by Richard Bribiescas, entitled Men, Science And Evolutionary Theory. I put "review" in quotes because Mansfield barely mentions the book, instead going off on tangents, apparently of his own devising. As far as can be gathered from Mansfield, the book's central theme (which may mark it as a work of evolutionary psychology and, therefore, not necessarily in the mainstream of evolutionary theory) is that:

... since the dominant function of life is to reproduce, one must, in the case of human life focus on the difference between men and women. The difference most impressive to Bribiescas is the one that is old as the hills and was known prior to all evolutionary science, namely that women know for sure that their child is theirs and men do not.

From this, Mansfield posits that:

He should hire eunuchs to guard her and behave like a sultan with his harem, giving full vent to his jealousy of her and his hostility to all other males who might be rivals as well as to all females who might be bribed by his rivals.

Mansfield conveniently ignores the part where, just a few paragraphs before, he has Bribiescas explaining that there are "trade-offs, throughout human life, between expending energy to stay alive vs. devoting it to reproduction."

But Mansfield then goes on to insist that scientists have a different imperative:

[A]s a scientist, a human male would have quite an opposite duty. A man of science does not take the view of his own sex but rises above it to consider the views of both sexes. He would be devoted to science, not to his own private genes. He would not favor his own child at any cost but would support other children if they showed better promise of becoming future scientists--future Darwinians.

Say what? Where does this come from? The closest we get is this paragraph that Anika thinks is just a perfect critique of evolutionary theory:

Evolutionary theory is at odds with itself: It cannot accept that man is a special being, raised above all others in evolutionary history, and it cannot deny that only man is capable of science, which allows him to transcend his animal selfishness. In closing, I note that I have made no reference to religion but only brought out the inner contradiction of Darwinism.

What we are never told is why science can't reconcile the ability of H. sapiens to do things in ways that other species can't. That is (with apologies to John Wilkins) practically the definition of "species." Yes, humans have evolved a set of intellectual attributes that, while not totally unique, have allowed us, more than any other species, to plan and act beyond mere instinct and to do science. I can also hold my breath and dive underwater. But I'll be damned if I can hold it for a half hour at a time, dive 1,500 feet deep and wrestle, kill and eat a giant squid, the way a sperm whale can.

Unless and until Mansfield or the Discovery Institute can point out a reason, other than a foolish egocentrism, why we should not award the whale the title of having been "raised above all others in evolutionary history" because of its "special" abilities, they are just navel-gazing and mistaking it for the universe.

Monday, March 30, 2009


A Sign of the Times

There is a nice editorial about the recent battle in Texas in the Grey Lady:

This was not a straightforward battle over whether to include creationism or its close cousin, intelligent design, in the science curriculum. That battle has been lost by Darwin's opponents in the courts, the schools and most political arenas.

Rather, this was a struggle to insert into the state science standards various phrases and code words that may seem innocuous or meaningless at first glance but could open the door to doubts about evolution. In the most ballyhooed vote, those like us who support the teaching of sound science can claim a narrow victory. ...

[Conservatives] had to settle for language requiring students to "analyze, evaluate and critique" scientific explanations and examine "all sides" of the scientific evidence.

At the end of a tense, confusing three-day meeting, Darwin's critics claimed that this and other compromise language amounted to a huge victory that would still allow their critiques into textbooks and classrooms. One can only hope that teachers in Texas will use common sense and teach evolution as scientists understand it.


Publishing World Agog

John Wilkins, the relentlessly antipodian philosopher of science and world-famous punster, has his book, Species: A History of the Idea, on the veritable verge of publication.

The complex idea of "species" has evolved over time, yet its meaning is far from resolved. This lucidly written, comprehensive work takes a fresh look at an idea central to the field of biology by tracing its history from antiquity to today. John S. Wilkins explores the essentialist view, a staple of logic from Plato and Aristotle through the Middle Ages to fairly recent times, and considers the idea of species in natural history--a concept often limited to reproduction. Tracing "generative conceptions" of species back through Darwin to Epicurus, Wilkins provides a new perspective on the relationship between philosophical and biological approaches to this concept. He also reviews the array of current definitions, asking if they capture the relevant facts, intuitions, and operational requirements of biology. In particular, Wilkins considers the views of Ernst Mayr and of more modern phylogenetic systems of classification. Written for a wide audience across disciplines, Species is a benchmark exploration and clarification of a concept fundamental to the past, present, and future of the natural sciences.

Be sure to get your copy right away (or next September, which ever comes first) as it will soon be made into a Major Motion Picture starring Tom Cruise as Aristotle, Angelina Jolie as Emma Darwin, and Robin Williams as Ernst Mayr.1


1 Okay, maybe I exaggerated a little.


Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest

Here I was just saying "stupid is as stupid does" and YouTube pokes its head up and suspends the account of the James Randi Educational Foundation!

Go here and follow the instructions to protest and help make this video go viral. PZ also has suggestions, namely, maybe it's time to avoid YouTube and look for substitutes.


Carnival of the Elitist Bastards XI

The eleventh Carnival of the Elitist Bastards is up and about at It's the Thought that Counts.

While the standard for being an elitist bastard has never been what it might sound like to those who do not aspire to the title, it's sad how low the bar has fallen in this country, as shown by this1:

A close relative of mine was telling me a story about the place she worked recently. Her company was having some sort of trivia contest. One of the questions was "Who delivered the Gettysburg address?" The company she works for is less than 150 miles from Gettysburg. Believe it or not, surrounded by college-educated people, she was the only one who knew.

When the author, and presumably the content, of one of the greatest speeches ever uttered, coming at a crucial time not just for our country but for the entire human species, is a blank spot in our collective memory, there is little hope of our having an intellectual life that rises above "Survivor" reruns or a body politic that is more than sloganeering aimed at the passions of the moment.

In short, if you think it's bad now, you may not want to contemplate tomorrow.


1 From Slobber and Spittle



The Wages of Stupidity

Ed Brayton has already mentioned that a federal judge has ordered McCreary and Pulaski counties in Kentucky to pay the legal fees to the ACLU, after it won a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2005.

The counties have been represented throughout by the ridiculous Matt Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and dean of the law school of the equally ridiculous Liberty University. That was their first stupidity.

The counties argued that the fees requested from the ACLU were unreasonable, among other reasons because the attorneys spent too much time on tasks such as legal research. District Judge Jennifer B. Coffman ruled that the fees were reasonable for a complex case that required 1,300 hours' work over 10 years. And then she pointed out their second and third stupidity:

The counties started the court battle by posting standalone copies of the Ten Commandments that were "indisputably unconstitutional" at the time, then fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend their actions, Coffman said.

"The defendants 'cannot litigate tenaciously and then be heard to complain about the time necessarily spent ... in response,'" Coffman wrote, citing an earlier court opinion.
If you are going to stupidly flaunt the Constitution, there is a point when you should cut your losses and run. That's especially true when:

McCreary County is one of the state's poorest, and is hard-pressed at times to fund police protection and other services.
It's hard to see how the county's elected officials can look themselves in the face after wasting time and money on such foolery when they can't pay for basic services. But their last and most egregious stupidity is that they are still listening to Staver:

However, the high court left open the possibility that the counties could someday post the Ten Commandments with other documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, so that the displays would have a secular purpose, not a religious one.

That is one issue on appeal now -- whether the counties have cured what one appeal panel called their "blatantly religious" motive for putting up the Ten Commandments in the first place.
Staver has apparently told them that, if the counties win the case on appeal, they won't have to pay the ACLU. As David A. Friedman, lead attorney for the ACLU, points out, the counties wouldn't have to pay all of the $400,000 in that case but the ACLU would still be entitled to a significant fee award, given that it won the original case and appeal.

As a great philosopher once said: "Stupid is as stupid does."

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Why Politicians and Education Don't Mix

Here is Don McLeroy on "stasis" and "sudden appearance" in the fossil record during his "impassioned plea" to keep his amendment to the Texas science standards, which read: "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record":

It's so scientific. It's not complicated. It doesn't take mathematics. I disagree with these experts. Someone has to stand up to experts ...

Of course, what McLeroy is doing -- tearing a factoid out of context and ignoring the explanations of the very expert he caged it from -- is the very opposite of science or of good scholarship. It is called "cherry-picking" (not to mention "quote mining") and is a quick path to failure in any rigorous course of study.

Unfortunately, that doesn't include politics.



In the category of things you never wished for and may not want:

In what one might call a biblical move, Christian philanthropist Howard Ahmanson -- one of three major funders of the campaign for California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages -- has abandoned the GOP for the Democratic Party.

On the one hand, Ahmanson allows how he no longer thinks gays should be stoned to death and does think that Republican "no new taxes" fundamentalism is foolish. On the other:

In case someone asked, "intelligent design" is neither Republican nor Democrat. And what I expect the Democratic Party to offer me is knowledge of people—admittedly a fringe—who know that.

Ahmanson has never been known for contributing heavily to candidates, so his influence on the party itself may be minor unless that changes. And it doesn't sound like he is going to change much in what sort of issue-oriented causes he will fund.

The interesting point may be that, having already alienated the rational conservatives like Colin Powell, the present Republican dimwittery may now be alienating even the non-rational ones.


Image by Johan Svensson

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Hamming It Up

I noted before the hypocrisy of Ken Ham complaining about one of his minions being "ambushed" by an expected radio interview supposedly being changed without warning into a debate with a creationism critic. Michael Zimmerman, head of the Clergy Letter Project, recounted Ham participating in just such an ambush of Professor Zimmerman with the added bonus of Zimmerman being told that a minor deception of this sort was acceptable in order to further God's wishes.

Ham has now whined that it wasn't him but the talk-show host, he never heard of Zimmerman and the dog ate his homework. A commenter at my place asked if there was a retraction in the works. I indicated that I had not seen anywhere in Ham's litany of excuses that he had remonstrated with the host, told him his actions were unChristian or refused to go on with the host's plan. In short, my statement that Ham participated in the ambush stood, as does my opinion that he condones "liars for Christ."

Professor Zimmerman has now expanded on what was said. I have even less inclination (if that's possible) to retract anything I've said about Ham.


Hitchens Your Wagon

Christopher Hitchens is in Newsweek with what might be called A Modest Proposal to resolve the "teach the controversy" dispute:

I certainly do not want it said that my side denies a hearing to the opposing one. In the spirit of compromise, then, I propose the following. First, let the school debating societies restage the wonderful set-piece real-life dramas of [the Wilberforce/Huxley debate at] Oxford and Dayton, Tenn [Monkey Trial]. Let time also be set aside, in our increasingly multiethnic and multicultural school system, for children to be taught the huge variety of creation stories, from the Hindu to the Muslim to the Australian Aboriginal. This is always interesting (and it can't be, can it, that the Texas board holdouts think that only Genesis ought to be so honored?). Second, we can surely demand that the principle of "strengths and weaknesses" will be applied evenly. If any church in Texas receives a tax exemption, or if any religious institution is the beneficiary of any subvention from the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, we must be assured that it will devote a portion of its time to laying bare the "strengths and weaknesses" of the religious world view, and also to teaching the works of Voltaire, David Hume, Benedict de Spinoza, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. This is America. Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a thousand schools of thought contend. We may one day have cause to be grateful to the Texas Board of Education for lighting a candle that cannot be put out.


Understanding Creationists

Jeremy Mohn at stand up for REAL science has an amusing discovery: Don McLeroy admitted yesterday that he didn't read all those books by "Darwinists" that he has been quoting lately, despite having said that that reading books about evolution was one of his hobbies and that he had been checking out three books a week on the topic of evolution from his local public library!

So, basically, in the creationist lexicon, checking out books on the topic of evolution amounts to hunting through the library for works by creationists who quote mine snippets from actual books on evolution?

Who woudda thunk it?


Movin' On

With Texas out of the limelight for a while (there is still that bill in the Texas legislature to restore the "strengths and weaknesses" language to the science standards) our nation turns its lonely eyes, not to Joe DiMaggio, but to Florida for its next dose of dimwittery. And Florida has apparently let us down:

A bill aimed at undercutting acceptance of evolution in Florida science classes, which kicked up a fuss but didn't pass in the Florida Legislature last year, apparently is going nowhere this year.

A Senate version of the bill has yet to receive a committee hearing and has no companion bill in the House.

That means, said one proponent of the idea, that the bill has little chance of passage in this frantic session, heavily devoted to cutting and balancing the state budget.

"With no companion in the House, it doesn't have much likelihood," said Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.
It seems that legislators in Florida are limited to introducing six bills per session and Hayes and the rest of the House members can, given the state of the country, actually think of six more important things to do than to screw up the education of Florida children.

Well, good for them!

Friday, March 27, 2009


It Could Have Been Worse

Much worse in fact. The "strengths and weaknesses" language is out of the Texas science standards. Moreover, Don McLeroy's amendment from January, which read:

... "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record"

... was replaced by the marginally better:

... "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data about sudden appearance, stasis and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil record."

McLeroy's amendment from yesterday that read:

... "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell."

... was replaced by the somewhat better:

... "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell."

Barbara Cargill's January amendment that read:

... "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."

... was replaced with:

... "evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and alignments with scientific explanations in light of this fossil data."

As we all know, creationists will try to drive a Mack truck through the eye of a needle and these changes, while less blatantly anti-scientific that what had previously been in store for Texas schools, will leave much room for creationist maneuverings come the textbook approval process. As Steve Schafersman says:

I realize that Casey Luskin of Discovery Institute will declare complete, unqualified victory, but it is not that for them. Neither is it for us. The standards adopted were generally good, but there are several that are flawed, fortunately most in minor ways that textbook authors and publishers can deal with. I think we can work around the few flawed standards. But the point is that there shouldn't be ANY flawed standards. The science standards as submitted by the science writing teams were excellent and flaw-free. All the flaws were added by politically unscrupulous SBOE members with an extreme right-wing religious agenda to support Creatonism. This will be come apparent in 2011 when the Biology textbooks come up for adoption.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Gag Rule

Laura Miller has a joint review of two new books: Matt Baglio's The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist and Peter Manseau's Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. Both look like they are interesting, if at all, in that car-wreck-rubbernecking way. Baglio tells the story of a modern exorcist-in-training and Manseau recounts tales of religious relics. If the following is a fair representation of Manseau's book, he certainly has the lead in the Ripley's Believe It or Not sweepstakes:

Both "The Rite" and "Rag and Bone" were no doubt primarily conceived as vessels for curious facts and bizarre stories. In them, you can find tales of possessed women vomiting up nails, live toads and "huge quantities of human sperm." You may feel like vomiting yourself when you learn that the devout have been known, when bowing to kiss the feet or hands of a saint's corpse, to discreetly bite off small pieces of the body (usually a finger or toe) and carry it away in their mouths to be enshrined in another church. This happened to Mary Magdalene and St. Francis Xavier -- whose unfortunate remains had already suffered a long sea journey, a couple of shallow burials and being "pounded" with "long pestles" by the natives of Malacca. Then there's Jesus' foreskin, of which there have been as many as a dozen purported relics circulating at any one time; an Austrian mystic dreamed of eating that like a communion wafer, though St. Catherine of Siena settled for wearing it as a wedding ring.

All together now! ... Ewwweh!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Monty Pharyngula

Okay, this tickles me!:

People like Richard Dawkins or P.Z. Myers turn purple shouting those who disagree with them down. If anything should convince the open-minded of the religious nature of their belief system, it should be the vicious nature of these attacks on the apostates. These attacks resemble nothing short of the Spanish Inquisition burning Jews and heretics at the stake.
[Jarring Chord]

NOBODY expects PZ Myers! My chief weapon is surprise ... surprise and fear ... fear and surprise ... My two weapons are fear and surprise ... and ruthless efficiency ... My three weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency ... and an almost fanatical devotion to Charles Darwin ... My four ...no... Amongst my weapons.... Amongst my weaponry ... are such elements as fear, surprise .... I'll come in again.


Fire Breathers

Another point about Don McLeroy's stunning article in The Austin American-Statesman is this bit of what has to be deliberate disinformation:

Words ["strengths and weaknesses"] that were uncontroversial and perfectly acceptable for nearly two decades are now considered "code words" for intelligent design and are deemed unscientific.
For one thing, McLeroy, in a presentation he delivered in 2005 at Grace Bible Church in Bryan, Texas about the 2003 textbook adoption process, himself complained that that there was controversy over what the "weaknesses" language meant:

But I want to tell you all the arguments made by all the intelligent design group, all the creationist intelligent design people, I can guarantee the other side heard exactly nothing. They did not hear one single fact, they were not swayed by one argument. It was just amazing. I mean all the, my fellow board members who were really not even the scientists in the group, they were not impressed by any of this. They said, "Oh well, it’s just two opinions." And there were only the four really conservative, orthodox Christians on the board were the only ones who were willing to stand up to the textbooks and say that they don’t present the weaknesses of evolution. Amazing.
To now claim these words were never controversial is the height of dishonesty. There may not have been as big a brouhaha back then but that was because the language was largely unimportant surplusage until recently. It was in 2003 that the problem with the "strengths and weaknesses" language really became acute, with the McLeroy-led attempt to force these phony weaknesses into biology texts.

Also, read that presentation McLeroy gave and see how closely he identifies the "strengths and weaknesses" campaign with Intelligent Design and judge for yourself if they are "code words" for creationism and ID (which he calls a "big tent" for creationists). Finally, take a look at how willing McLeroy is to counsel people to disguise their true motives.

Time to remember Judge Jones' opinion again:

It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.


Hi, Ho ... Hi, Ho ...

About the quote mine of Stephen Jay Gould that Don McLeroy uses in his bafflegab piece in The Austin American-Statesman, Jeremy Mohn included it in his Collapse of a Texas Quote Mine. It is one of the quote mines McLeroy got from Genesis Park, which describes itself as presenting:

... in a graphical, easily accessible manner the evidence that dinosaurs and man were created together and have co-existed throughout history. ... Genesis Park questions the evolutionary illusions surrounding the dinosaurs and approaches the subject of origins with a literal adherence to the scriptures and an emphasis on creation demonstrating God's power.
Here, from the Quote Mine Project, is a bit more explanation of what Gould meant by "stasis is data," which was one of his favorite catchphrases:

[Niles] Eldredge and I proposed that stasis should be an expected and interesting norm (not an embarrassing failure to detect change), and that evolution should be concentrated in brief episodes of branching speciation.
In short, as is so often the case in quote mines of Gould, this is about Punctuated Equilibria. Those wanting to know more about Punctuated Equilibria can see Wes Elsberry's piece at the Talk Origins Archive. We know McLeroy won't bother since his objective is not to learn or promote education but to confuse and obfuscate.

But since McLeroy's campaign is, he keeps telling us, not about religion, what then is his "supernaturalist explanation" of stasis in the fossil record?


Update: Larry Moran has a nice explanation of Punctuated Equilibria as well.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009


McLeroy Gives Away the Farm

You really have to see this to believe it.

Don McLeroy is in The Austin American-Statesman making some amazing admissions (as well as deploying some unamazing quote mines). It will take more time to deconstruct than I have tonight because it is such a muddle of disingenuousness and/or stupidity that it rivals the lunatic book he endorsed. But some things leap out immediately:

McLeroy admits that he sees the dispute, not as a matter of good science or good education, but, rather, as a "culture war over evolution" he's waging against "academia's far-left, along with the secular elite opinion-makers." Damn! I love being among the elite.

McLeroy proposes a definition of science as "the use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomenon as well as the knowledge generated through this process" that he claims comes from the National Academy of Sciences booklet Science, Evolution, and Creationism (which is nowhere to be found there, as far as I can see). And, despite claiming that his proposed standards are not religious, he actually goes on to state that under his definition "both the naturalist and the supernaturalist are free to make 'testable' [i.e. scientific] explanations."

The bottom line is: he's claiming that "supernaturalist explanations" are somehow not religious explanations and that they should have equal places in public school science classrooms.

Nobody can say McLeroy lack chutzpah ... but maybe he should lay off the nitrous oxide.


Update: McLeroy's definition is in the NAS booklet (late night confusion caused me to search the wrong document) but, as Jeremy Mohn has already pointed out, the NAS made it clear that "testable explanations" and "natural explanations" are synonymous as far as its definition is concerned:

Natural causes are, in principle, reproducible and therefore can be checked independently by others. If explanations are based on purported forces that are outside of nature, scientists have no way of either confirming or disproving those explanations. Any scientific explanation has to be testable - there must be possible observational consequences that could support the idea but also ones that could refute it. Unless a proposed explanation is framed in a way that some observational evidence could potentially count against it, that explanation cannot be subjected to scientific testing.
In other words, McLeroy is quote mining again.



Leading the Blind

Lisa Falkenberg of the Houston Chronicle has a refreshingly blunt piece on the fiasco threatening to happen this week in the Texas State Board of Education.

Ever seen a cat-dog? Of course not! That just proves it's impossible for one species to evolve into another.

The human brain seems not to have changed since homo sapiens first appeared 150,000 years ago. That means evolution is false.

We don't have every bone, so the fossil record undercuts the theory of evolution.

A few scientists have fudged proof of evolution, so that calls into question all the other evidence.

These are the brilliant observations and insinuations of a particularly dangerous right-wing fringe group: the seven-member social conservative bloc of the State Board of Education.

No phony "balance" need apply.

Falkenberg also finds out a bit more about the quote mining Don McLeroy, the creationist Chairman of what may turn out to be the Board of Miseducation, did at the January meeting of the Board:

Board Chairman and ardent Darwin-denier Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, pushed through one of the amendments after reading aloud a long list of quotes attempting to cast doubt on evolution from reputable science publications and authoritative books by revered scientists. ...

But blogger and Kansas biology teacher, Jeremy Mohn, revealed McLeroy's bad clip job in his extensive blog posting, "Collapse of a Texas Quote Mine." Mohn also provided the context and authors' explanations lacking in McLeroy's quote list.

What Jeremy went on to discover was that McLeroy plagiarized much of his "research" from a creationist site entitled Genesis Park. (But, of course, we should all believe the protestations of McLeroy and his allies on the Board that they don't want to teach religion in public schools!) McLeroy's quote mines were in the same order; were virtually identical, right down to punctuation; had the same style of citation to the sources; and, for the pièce de résistance, McLeroy copied a page number error, which is, ironically, the same sort of "copying error" that allows us to trace common ancestry in the genes of extant life on Earth.

In short, McLeroy quote mined his quote mines. Falkenberg asked McLeroy about the quote mining:

McLeroy acknowledged to me that he had copied some of the research from the creationist site because he liked "the format," although he said he had indeed read one of the books. He added: "A lot of the quotes I did get on my own."

As Falkenberg says:

Yet another fine testament to the level of scholarship that goes on at the State Board of Education.


Monday, March 23, 2009


Department of Justice

As reported by the National Center for Science Education, the Supreme Court has today denied, without opinion, Lawsuit Larry Caldwell's petition for a writ of certiorari, letting the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision stand, which had upheld the District Court's dismissal of the case.

Larry and his wife (the nominal plaintiff) challenged the constitutionality of the Understanding Evolution website, developed by the University of California Museum of Paleontology and the National Center for Science Education, on the unforgivable grounds that it suggested that not all religious people are ignoramuses. The Caldwells apparently were offended because they thought that people might take away the message that it was better not to be an ignoramus.

Of course, the website wasn't as blunt as I am and I'm sure that the Caldwells are better at PR than to admit that their objection to the site boils down to that ... but it does.

In any event, the Caldwell's ridiculous suit is well and truly dead.


Jesus Christ, Super Liar

That's apparently what Ken Ham thinks of Jesus.

As recounted at Exploring Our Matrix and Clashing Cultures, Michael Zimmerman of the Clergy Letter Project has taken note of Ham's complaint that the BBC "ambushed" one of his "scientists," Jason Lisle, by turning a scheduled interview into a debate with Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education without informing Lisle ahead of time. Doubtless, Lisle came off badly and Ham is trying to spin his bad performance.

The truth or falsity of Ham's charge (and the implication that Lisle is not, apparently, able to defend his faith very well) is not the interesting part of this. The interesting thing is, as recounted by Zimmerman in an email newsletter, Ham himself participated in just such an ambush:

What makes Ham's complaints so incredibly ironic and hypocritical is that this is exactly what he did to me a year ago. I was scheduled to do an interview last year on a fundamentalist Christian radio show only to discover, upon going on the air, that Ken Ham was also on the line, ready to debate me. When asked why neither the host nor Ken had the courtesy to inform me that I was to participate in a debate rather than in an interview, I was told that they believed that I wouldn't have accepted their offer had I been told the truth. When I questioned them about the deception, I was told that since the debate was to further God's wishes, a minor deception of this sort was acceptable.

If Ham's version of Jesus aids and abets lying by condoning it, that makes him a liar himself. Then the question is why believe anything Jesus (supposedly) said?

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Selection Against Darwin

A thought:
The surge of enthusiasm for eugenics came at a time when the majority of biologists had turned their backs on Darwinism. Even when natural selection began to attract more attention in the 1930s, there was no direct link to eugenics. If R. A. Fisher supported eugenics, the co-founder of population genetics, J. B. S. Haldane, wrote openly against the movement from a socialist perspective. In America, the most effective scientific support for eugenics came from early Mendelians such as C. B. Davenport. ... [A]t this point the Mendelians were hostile to Darwinism and did not believe that natural selection played any role in the evolution of new characters. The popularity of eugenics must thus be accounted for in terms of broader social factors. It was certainly not the result of Darwinism promoting the idea of artificial selection of the human population.

- Peter J. Bowler, The Non-Darwinian Revolution

Saturday, March 21, 2009


I Think We're Back in Kansas, Toto

Texas State Rep. Leo Berman is the bright light who proposed an amendment to the Education Code to exempt:

... a private educational institution, including a separate degree-granting program, unit, or school operated by the institution, that: (1) does not accept state funding of any kind to support its educational programs; (2) does not accept state-administered federal funding to support its educational programs; (3) was formed as or is affiliated with or controlled by a nonprofit corporation or nonprofit unincorporated organization; and (4) offers bona fide degree programs that require students to complete substantive course work in order to receive a degree from the institution

... from the requirement of obtaining a certificate of authority to grant the degree by the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board. You might remember the Institute for Creation Research was denied permission by the board to offer an online master's degree in Science Education not long ago.

When the National Center for Science Education contacted Rep. Berman's office and asked if the bill would apply to the ICR's graduate school, it was told by a staffer that he thought it would. It seems that there was little reason for any doubt on the staffer's part, since Berman is now admitting that the bill was specifically crafted to benefit the ICR:

State Rep. Leo Berman (R-Tyler) proposed House Bill 2800 when he learned that The Institute for Creation Research (ICR), a private institution that specializes in the education and research of biblical creationism, was not able to receive a certificate of authority from Texas' Higher Education Coordinating Board to grant Master of Science degrees. ...

HB 2800 does not specifically name ICR; it would allow any institution that meets its criteria to be exempt from the board's authority. But Berman says ICR was the inspiration for the bill because he feels creationism is as scientific as evolution and should be granted equal weight in the educational community.

Berman's rationale is ... um ... unique:

"If you don't take any federal funds, if you don't take any state funds, you can do a lot more than some business that does take state funding or federal funding," Berman says. "Why should you be regulated if you don't take any state or federal funding?"

Think of all the business that could benefit from his thinking. Your local gas station probably doesn't get Federal or state funding, so it they want to rig their pumps to deliver .9 gallons but charge you for a full one, who is the state to regulate that? Your doctor wants to use outdated medication to treat your illness, why should the state medical association care as long as he isn't feeding at the government tit? The supermarket down the block is selling rotten meat, who gives a fig as long as it isn't getting public funds?

The fact that the bill is intended to exempt creationist institutions from otherwise rigorous standards will make any lawsuit to invalidate it, should it become law, so much the easier. That's pretty much the definition of government favoring of religion. Naturally, Berman couldn't let it go at that:

I do believe in creationism. I do believe there are gaps in evolution.

He only forgot to end it with "I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I DO!"


Via Jeremy Mohn at stand up for REAL science



Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority has noticed Casey Luskin, Gofer General of the Discovery Institute, quote mining a review article in Biochemical Journal by Kevin Padian and Nick Matzke. By all means, go to Mike's place to see the details. I'm interested in something a bit different; namely, another example of projection by a DI drone:

It's always amusing how evolutionists continually proclaim, and then re-proclaim, the apparent demise of intelligent design (ID) (i.e. 'no really, this time ID actually is dead!'!).
Glenn Morton is a former creationist of the young-Earth variety who was a minor celebrity in their circles for having written a number of articles on "creation science" ... until he began working as a geologist for an oil company and realized that what he was seeing in the course of his work belied his own arguments. To explain his prior blindness to the evidence, he posited "Morton's Demon" as an explanation of creationist psychology. It's well worth the read, if you're interested in understanding creationism and other movements that ignore the plain evidence in front of their noses.

Another service that Glenn has performed is to gather examples of claims of "The Imminent Demise of Evolution: The Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism." Here's where the projection comes in. If you look at the last ten entries in Glenn's list, eight of them are by DI stalwarts or their allies. A few examples:

In the next five years, molecular Darwinism -- the idea that Darwinian processes can produce complex molecular structures at the subcellular level -- will be dead.

- William Dembski, Touchstone, 2004

Darwinian evolution is little more than a historical footnote in biology textbooks.

- Jonathan Wells. World, 2004

It's almost not worth deciding what to do about Darwinism, because it is on the way out anyway.

- Denise O'Leary, Theology Web, 2006

The Darwinist/materialist hegemony over our culture has definitely peaked, and we are privileged to watch the initial tremors that are shaking the Darwinist house of cards.

- Barry Arrington, webmaster at William Dembski's blog, Uncommon Descent, 2008
And, of course, that is merely the tip of the iceberg. Glenn's list goes back to even before Darwin published the Origin. Casey's proclamation would be more honestly recast as follows:

It's always amusing how creationists continually proclaim, and then re-proclaim, the apparent demise of evolution (i.e. 'no really, this time evolution actually is dead!'!).
Wrong again!


Friday, March 20, 2009


Of Spills and Beans

My, my! This is interesting.

Solving Light Books announced today that Don McLeroy, controversial Chair of the Texas State Board of Education, has recommended "Sowing Atheism" (ISBN: 978-0-9705438-5-1) by Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr., to other board members and to the general public. McLeroy's timely recommendation could influence the board's final decision on the science curriculum scheduled for March 27. The Texas decision will determine what is printed in science textbooks nationwide.

You can download Sowing Atheism here. As the blurb at the download site says:

Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr., who holds a general science degree from West Point, wrote SOWING ATHEISM in response to the book published by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January of this year, Science, Evolution, and Creationism. The NAS sent its book to educators, school boards, and science teachers throughout the United States, falsely affirming that molecules-to-man evolution is a "fact" when in reality it does not even meet the minimum conditions for a valid theory.

Science, Evolution, and Creationism was the NAS's attempt to address the relationship between science and religion that has been criticized by some atheists for being too conciliatory to the latter. Be that as it may, if this "report" (more of a marketing ploy, I suspect) is true, it says much about the nature of McLeroy's position on the Texas science standards and his claim that he isn't seeking to have religion taught in the state's public schools. If he has recommended the book, it may well bear on any court challenge later on. Some quotes from Johnson's book:

[T]he NAS hierarchy, in order to bolster and "prove" its atheism, has constructed a closed, sacrosanct, counterfeit philosophy of science which completely eliminates the valid God hypothesis, along with any possibility of bringing it up again. (p. 12)

Science, Evolution, and Creationism is anything but an appeal to open-minded readers to use their powers of discernment to carefully consider the evidence. It is a cleverly disguised all-out, direct attack on the authority of the Word of God, and on all other challenges to their philosophical and religious dogma of evo-atheism (evolutionist atheism). (p. 13)

It continues, as far as a very quick skim reveals, in the same vein for another hundred pages or more. Included are the usual creationist talking points: the elitism of scientists, argumentums ad populum, and presuppositionalism. There is also a misunderstanding of what "separation of church and state" means, which may go a long way towards explaining McLeroy's claim not to be trying to have religion taught while still asserting that his amendment to the standards opens the door to the possibility that the universe was created by God:

Creationists do not want to bring religion into the classroom. With all the different sects of Christianity, some of them very strange, and all the other Creator-acknowledging religions, that would lead to chaos. Creationists simply want the God hypothesis brought back into the science classroom, and recognized for what it is—a scientifically valid hypothesis.

But, as Johnson himself admits through his presuppositionism, it is only "a scientifically valid hypothesis" if you assume a creator God in the first place, in particular because of "the Word of God":

Evidence is not the problem: it is the interpretation that causes the controversy. Creationism and evolution both interpret the structure and events of nature, representing opposite hypotheses with different assumptions. The creation hypothesis, or the God hypothesis, looks at the apparent design in nature, and says that this points to a Creator. The evolutionary hypothesis also sees the apparent design in nature, but says that this is illusory, and that all life can be explained chemically and materialistically (methodological materialism) without reference to a Creator.

As Justice Black pointed out over 60 years ago, the government cannot pass laws "which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another." Johnson implicitly acknowledges that there are religions that do not hold a belief in a creator God while, by definition, a belief in a creator God must be a religious belief. For government to endorse a belief in a creator God is necessarily to aid one group of religions over others and over disbelief. Science, by proceeding by methodological naturalism, does not do that. By eschewing supernatural explanations within its discipline, science leaves open the possibility that it will not detect supernatural causes.

Thus, the Establishment Clause is not violated by science, since Johnson and his ilk can still cling to their presuppositionalism and teach it where it belongs, along with all other religious beliefs, in their churches and homes.


Update: The Texas Freedom Network was already on this case and has had more time to peruse Johnson's book:

As bizzarre and abrasive as some of these ideas may be, clearly any yahoo with a half-baked idea can write and self-publish a book. That is not the important point here. The real issue is the inability of the chair of the Texas State Board of Education to distinguish between legitimate, mainstream science - as represented by the National Academy of Sciences - and a lone crackpot with an openly religious agenda.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Singing From the Same Song Hymn Book

You've probably heard about Canadian Science minister Gary Goodyear's original refusal to respond to a question about whether he "believes" in evolution, saying:

I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.

The obvious first follow-up question should have been "Why is a question about your understanding of science a question about your religion, unless your religion is against science?"

Be that as it may, Goodyear has now "clarified" his position by saying that he does believe in evolution:

Of course I do. ...

We are evolving every year, every decade. That's a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment. But that's not relevant and that is why I refused to answer the question. The interview was about our science and tech strategy, which is strong.

Larry Moran correctly points out that these are weasel words of a type well known to those of us who have been fighting the creationism wars for so long. Goodyear was describing exactly the same sort of "evolution" that Ken Mercer, one of the creationist members of the Texas State Board of Education, was referring to when he said:

Most people of faith agree with what is commonly referred to as "micro" evolution, small changes that are clearly visible.

... right before he said:

The controversial "macro" evolution was commonly understood as those major changes that could occur if one species jumped to another.

In other words, it is "evolution" as it is understood by the scientific community that they deny; namely, common descent.

As if to specifically point out Goodyear's evasion, Ken Ham's Creation "Museum" has announced that it is opening an exhibit that affirms the correctness of Darwin's theory of natural selection:

The exhibit, entitled "Natural Selection is Not Evolution" features a cave aquarium with blind cavefish to show how organisms possess traits specific to their environment. It also features a "Creation Orchard" that shows the family tree of each original kind of created plant or animal as described in Genesis.

Ham believes creatures can gain new traits to fit their surroundings within their own families. He asserts, however, that changing from one organism to another, such as an ape evolving into a human, does not occur.

"Darwin was right about natural selection, right about different species forming and species changing, but wrong that such changes are a mechanism to change one kind of animal into a totally different kind," Ham said.

The only question here is whether Goodyear was reading over Ham's shoulder or was Ham reading over Goodyear's.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Hope For the Future

Remember Matt LaClair, the Kearny, New Jersey high school student who dared to stand up to a popular American history teacher who was injecting his religious views into his classes? Well, he's not alone. All the way across the country, deliciously in the back yard of the Undiscovery Institute, another young man has shown remarkable maturity and courage:

Colin Moyer, a senior at Curtis High School in University Place, has been awarded a 2009 ACLU Youth Activist Scholarship for challenging the teaching of a form of creationism in his science class and for promoting freedom of speech at his school. ...

Moyer was shocked when his popular tenth-grade biology teacher began teaching a view of evolution that focused more on religious views than on scientific facts and didn't tolerate criticism. "A class that was usually interactive was suddenly single-sided," said Moyer. "Students were not allowed to ask questions, and there were no textbooks or tests."

Moyer began to read books and articles on evolution. He soon realized that his teacher was promoting creationism in the guise of "intelligent design," the same approach that was ruled unconstitutional in a 2005 case in Dover, Pennsylvania (Kitzmiller v. Dover).
Moyer contacted the ACLU and the National Center for Science Education and, with their support, was able to work out a settlement with the school that had the teacher forced to stop teaching intelligent design creationism.

Not content with that, Moyer then went on to organize and publish an alternative student newspaper, since the official one had ceased operating.

The paper has been recognized by the Student Press Law Center for exercising and protecting students' civil liberties. Moyer currently helps other student journalists whose newspapers are being censored and subjected to prior review.
Quite a resume for someone not old enough to drink.


Via Seattle Weekly's blog, The Daily Weekly, which had the perfect title for this story: "Too Intelligent for Intelligent Design."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Freudian Spit

Ah, David Klinghoffer is over at the Discovery Institute's Ministry of Misinformation practicing the fine art of projection. Ironically, it begins with an admission dressed up as an accusation:

The power of a slogan is that if you say it over and over again enough times, the effect is like brainwashing on yourself and many of the people who listen to you. It crowds out thought, to the point where, when a particular topic comes up in conversation, the slogan-imprinted mind simply spits back the slogan.

That's a perfect description of the Intelligent Design Movement's tactics from the very beginning –- declare there is a "controversy" about the scientific basis of evolutionary theory and keep saying it as loud and as often as you can until people who are unfamiliar with science start to believe it. Except Klinghoffer tries to turn it around and claim that scientists, who only belatedly began to pay much attention to such an obviously unscientific proposition as ID, are the ones who are sloganeering.

His "case" in point is how scientists have been reacting to Michael Behe's mess of a book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, which, among other things, accuses the "Designer," who Behe has said he thinks is God, of deliberately designing the malaria parasite to be as infectious and damaging to human beings as it is.

To Klinghoffer, the very fact that scientists deign to respond to Behe shows that there is a controversy. Of course, if they didn't respond to him, Kinghoffer would claim it was because "Darwinists" have no answer to Behe's claims. And using Behe's latest book, published only in 2007, as his "proof" that there is a controversy merely highlights the scarcity of anything even close to a scientific case for ID, which has, nonetheless, been shouting "controversy" since at least 1991, when Phillip Johnson's Darwin On Trial was published.

In a sense, Klinghoffer's right. There is a controversy -- it just isn't a scientific controversy. It's a political and educational controversy, of the sort that is going on in Texas and numerous other states. It's a controversy about whether we, as a nation of laws, should allow any group to subvert our Constitution and inject their religious beliefs into public school science classes. It's that political controversy that has the Texas Republican party trying to intimidate State Board of Education members who happen to take their duties, both to the Constitution and the children of the state, seriously, in an attempt to get them to vote against their consciences and to support pseudoscience.

So scientists have to try to educate the portion of the public who are not already committed creationists that the sciencey-sounding blather of people like Behe is not anything like science as it is actually practiced. Pointing out that something is nonsense does not make it somehow less nonsensical. It merely points out how politically potent nonsense can be.

The only other controversy that is brought to light by Klinghoffer is whether or not there is a limit to the dishonesty of ID advocates. Based on this article, there certainly doesn't seem to be.

Monday, March 16, 2009


The Road to Perdition

The Texas Freedom Network is reporting that the Texas State Republican Executive Committee has passed a resolution calling upon the Republican members of the State Board of Education to support the retention of the "strengths and weaknesses" standard in the Texas science standards, officially making the results of science and educational content a partisan political issue. Of course we knew that before but now the Texas Republican party has gone beyond a philosophical position and is implicitly attempting to force Republicans in positions of public trust to vote against what they clearly think is right for the children of Texas, on pain of political consequences.

Interestingly, the 2008 State Republican Platform, referred to in the resolution actually says this:

Theories of Origin – We support objective teaching and equal treatment of strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, including Intelligent Design. We believe theories of life origins and environmental theories should be taught as scientific theory, not scientific law. Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind.

Looks like the party is demanding that the teaching of ID be made mandatory, which we all know the Discovery Institute is against. Plus, the only court case so far that has addressed ID found it to a religious concept, which the creationist members of the board (also Republicans) all swear they don't want to teach.

What's that phrase? Damned if you do ...

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Break Out the Floppy Shoes

Apparently the creationists in Texas aren't confident that their representatives on the State Board of Education can carry the day. As reported by the NCSE, the appropriately named Wayne Christian (guess which party!) of the Texas House of Representatives has introduced H.B. No. 4224 which reads, in relevant part:

SECTION 1. Subchapter A, Chapter 28, Education Code, is amended by adding Section 28.0027 to read as follows:

Sec. 28.0027. STUDY OF SCIENCE. (a) As part of the essential knowledge and skills of the science curriculum under Section 28.002(a)(1)(C), the State Board of Education by rule shall establish elements relating to instruction on the scientific hypotheses and theories for grades 6-12.

(b) Instructional elements for scientific processes: the student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information;

(c) Students may be evaluated based upon their understanding of course materials, but no student in any public school or institution shall be penalized in any way because he or she subscribes to a particular position on scientific theories or hypotheses;

(d) No governmental entity shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students to understand, analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.

Besides mandating the "strengths and weaknesses" ploy, the law repeats the protection given by the late, unlamented, "academic freedom" bill from Florida to the use by teachers of "scientific information" to critique evolution. It was that provision of the Florida bill that Casey Luskin so memorably tied himself into such tight knots over, trying to answer the seemingly easy question of whether ID arguments count as "scientific information," that the rest of the Discovery-bereft Institute couldn't free him from the tangle.

I suppose the one upside to this bill is that it may result in Luskin giving another performance of his unintended comedy routine for our amusement.


Steady ... Steady ...

New Scientist really wants to trash whatever reputation it may have once had.

First it was the "Darwin Was Wrong" cover that did not match the contents of the (over-hyped) story of long known issues about the "tree of life." The author, responding to numerous criticisms, defended the sensationalism all over the blogoshere on the basis of selling magazines. It worked, of course, at least in one corner of Texas, where people trying to gut science education in the state and, by extension, all across America, were quick to exploit it at the state Board of Education hearings. Others have followed suit.

Afterwards, in the way of a small compensation, New Scientist published an article by Amanda Gefter, a book reviews editor at the magazine, on "How to spot a hidden religious agenda" in "so-called science books which after a few pages reveal themselves to be harbouring ulterior motives."

However, as the Examiner's Dylan Otto Krider is reporting, if you click on the link to Gefter's story, you get this message (as of 1:45 p.m., EDT):

New Scientist has received a complaint about the contents of this story. It has temporarily been removed while we investigate. Apologies for any inconvenience

My, my. Numerous legitimate complaints were made about the "Darwin Was Wrong" cover and there was no yanking it off the web, as far as I know. I'm sure that the complaint about Geftner's story must be much more serious. The editors will doubtless let us know the details as soon as they are finished "investigating."



Update: The message at New Scientist has changed:

New Scientist has received a legal complaint about the contents of this story. At the advice of our lawyer it has temporarily been removed while we investigate. Apologies for any inconvenience.
I'm no expert in British defamation law (though it is, to an American lawyer's mind, draconian) but there are only three authors and/or works mentioned by name that could possibly make a "legal" complaint: James Le Fanu and his book Why Us?; the ever-ridiculous Denyse (accent on the "Deny") O'Leary; and the "documentary" (Gefter's scare quotes) film Expelled: No intelligence allowed. It'll be interesting to find out who threatened or brought a suit ... if anyone.

Update II: Denyse denies it was her.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Workers of the World

I'm a little more progressive than Mike Dunford but a little less than John Lynch.

But anyway you slice it, all three of us are commie, God-hating, anti-Merkin', wine-sipping, nattering nabobs of negativism and part of the effete corps of impudent snobs "extremely progressive" according to the Center For American Progress.

In the Center's "Interactive Quiz: How Progressive Are You?" I scored 335 out of 400, well above the national mean of 209.5.

As always, take this quiz with a grain of salt as your mileage may vary.



Dueling Theologies

Both Larry Moran and Mike Haubrich have favorably mentioned this article: "The Untenability of Theistic Evolution (2009)" by Bart Klink. I'm afraid I find it wanting in many ways, but there is no real need to go beyond this:

To avoid conflict with the methodological naturalism of science, TE would have to exclude consideration of any supernatural intervention during creation. What, then, is the theistic aspect of TE? Why not simply speak of purely naturalistic evolution, or even deistic evolution, where God set the universe in motion but since let it (and biological evolution) run entirely on its own?

This is a basic misunderstanding of what TE is and/or what the methodological naturalism of science is. The very reason it is called "methodological naturalism" is that it applies specifically to the methodology of science. TE, on the other hand, is not science, it is a theological position concerning one possible theistic reaction to the results of science. A theological position need not apply the scientific method to itself.

Thus, someone adhering to TE doesn't have to exclude consideration of any supernatural intervention during creation as part of the theology; he or she (in accordance with TE) only needs to exclude supernaturalism from scientific explanations of nature (i.e. apply the scientific methodology to science).

The theology of TE can well be criticized as a species of "God in the gaps" or because it doesn't take the Bible as seriously as Mr. Klink thinks it should but, frankly, I'm as uninterested in atheists' theological musings as I am in theists'.

And to ask "[w]hy not simply speak of purely naturalistic evolution" is kinda missing the point of theology, isn't it?

TE may or may not suck as theology ... but as logic and philosophy it is at least consistent, just as (grudgingly) Mr. Klink admits it is consistent with science (even if not all adherents of TE are).

As far as I'm concerned, the latter point makes it superior theology ... as those things go*.

* Compare it, for example, to the Creation Letter Project Mike refers to.


One Man's Meat

Dr. Richard Land, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, is at The Christian Post "Lamenting the Reversal of Pro-Life Stem Cell Policy."

Monday was a sad day for the sanctity of all human life in America. President Obama, in rescinding President Bush's order of August 2001, which banned federal funding of research that causes the destruction of human embryos, declared open season on unborn babies, allowing them to be destroyed for the sole purpose of harvesting their embryonic cells and tissue in the hopes of discovering treatments for maladies and diseases affecting older and bigger human beings.

He trots out the same tired arguments: using days old embryos is killing "babies;" it requires millions of Americans who find such research morally reprehensible to subsidize it through their tax dollars; of the "several hundred thousand" embryos currently awaiting disposal in fertility clinics, a few hundred "have been adopted and successfully born as healthy children;" and it is a slippery slope to allowing embryos to be created by cloning for the sole purpose of harvesting their cells before they reach 14 days' gestation.

The clump of cells that is an embryo after a few days is hardly fairly described as a "baby." I thought that the war in Iraq was morally reprehensible but I still had to pay taxes going to it -- that's how it works in a democracy, I get to have a voice in the process, which the Righteous Right has certainly had over stem cell research, but in the end, we still have to pay the taxes. Sure, the embryos can be brought to term -- that's why they were created in the first place, after all -- but that says nothing about their present legal or moral state. And what would be wrong with cloning, per se? ... especially when it would reduce the number of original embryos used, which were slated for destruction anyway? It's all a muddle of sloppy "thinking" dressed up as moral claims to shield them from intellectual criticism.

But what such screed would be complete without a reductio ad Hitlerum?

Many supporters of the President's decision have erroneously hailed this as removing politics and ideology from science. In fact, it is an attempt to remove morality from scientific research. History, from the Third Reich and elsewhere, teaches us that such a shift is a steep and slippery slope to a dark, depraved and dangerous destination.

If true, you'd think that the Jewish faith and the state of Israel would be particularly sensitive to such issues.

There are, however, no Jewish prohibitions to hobble stem cell research in Israel. Jewish tradition, says Rabbi Elliott Dorff, a professor at the University of Judaism in California, regards the human fetus as being 'like water' for the first 40 days. Only from the 41st day is it regarded as a human being. "The Jewish religion would consider it far better to use (embryonic stem cells) for cures than to simply throw them away," he said.

In point of fact, there was no such elevation of embryos to the status of human beings (a legal term of art in the US) prior to the decision in Roe v. Wade, except among Catholics. No state in the US ever treated abortion or the killing of a fetus as a homicide, which they would have had to do if it was widely believed that embryos were the same as babies after birth. Protestant moral outrage is ad hoc, arising only as a tactic in the fight against abortion after they became legally available ... ironically adopted from the "Whore of Babylon."

All this points to the fact that this is, as far as the moral claim goes, an issue mostly of sectarian beliefs. The attempt to turn some religious beliefs into official government policy is, of course, the stuff of theocracy. If they have a case as to why a secular state should not let scientists pursue what they see as the most promising avenue of medical and scientific research, the Righteous Right has failed to present it so far.

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