Friday, April 25, 2014

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Smithsonian Gets Tyrannosaurus rex, AiG Responds

Last week, the Washington Post reported that the Smithsonian Institution had finally purchased an original Tyrannosaurus rex fossil to replace the replica that has stood in the Dinosaur hall for the last fifteen years.  J. Freedom du Lac reports:
The world’s second-most-visited museum has big plans for the borrowed king carnivore: It will stand as the centerpiece of the new dinosaur hall that’s scheduled to open in 2019, after a five-year, $48 million makeover. The hall — one of the most visited spaces at the Natural History Museum — closes April 28.

“It’s an amazing object,” Johnson said of the T. rex.

The 38-foot-long dinosaur died more than 66 million years ago in a riverbed and was frozen in time — and rock — for ages. It remained unseen and undisturbed from the late Cretaceous Period until around Labor Day in 1988, when rancher Kathy Wankel spotted a small part of an arm bone during a day hike in a wildlife refuge.
The fossil will be in the hall for fifty years because it is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers.  It will inspire students of science for decades to come.  Its purchase by the Smithsonian did not go unnoticed, however.  Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis, had this to say:
From many of the responses I’ve seen to the Creation Museum’s exquisite dinosaur exhibits and sculptures (including life-like animatronic dinosaurs), it would seem that evolutionists think they “own” dinosaurs! They see dinosaurs as synonymous with evolution and millions of years, and evolutionists can become very upset when creationists use dinosaurs. Evolutionists know that kids are fascinated by these creatures, and so they can be used to draw kids in and teach them about evolution.

For example, recently, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (in Washington, DC), acquired a
T. rex skeleton, known as “the Nation’s T. Rex.” This T. rex is very complete. The museum director, Kirk Johnson, believes the new dinosaur skeleton will draw many children to the National Museum of Natural History, saying, “Dinosaurs are the gateway drug to science for kids.”

Of course, secularists know that children love dinosaurs, and they use dinosaurs to indoctrinate kids into evolutionary ideas. “The Nation’s
T. Rex” will be a centerpiece for the Smithsonian—a museum funded by our tax dollars. In reality, then, the government is imposing the religion of evolution and millions of years on children visiting the Smithsonian, while also claiming a supposed separation of church and state! Our tax dollars are funding the religion of naturalism (atheism) and its evolutionary story to be exhibited in the Smithsonian in the nation’s capital!
As I mentioned in a comment on my last post, this is part and parcel of how Ham works. As he did in the Ham on Nye debate, by dismissing all of the historical sciences as bogus, he can claim that the Smithsonian is practicing religious indoctrination.  Since, in his mind, evolution is only supported by the fossil record, a record of past events, it isn't scientific.  That evolution is supported by modern genetics either completely escapes him or, worse, is something he ignores because he has to.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Bill Nye Says He Underestimated Impact of Debate

Bill Nye now says that he underestimated the impact that his debate with Ken Ham had on the evolution/creationism debate.  As he writes in the Skeptical Inquirer:
I do about a dozen college appearances every year. It’s a privilege that I enjoy immensely. At first, I figured this appearance and this encounter would get about the same amount of notice as a nice college gig. There’d be a buzz on Twitter and Facebook, but the world would go on spinning without much notice on the outside. Not here: the creationists promoted it like crazy, and soon it seemed like everyone I met was talking about it.

I slowly realized that this was a high-pressure situation. Many of you, by that I mean many of my skeptic and humanist colleagues, expressed deep concern and anger that I would be so foolish as to accept a debate with a creationist, as this would promote him and them more than it would promote me and us. As I often say and sincerely believe, “You may be right.” But, I held strongly to the view that it was an opportunity to expose the well-intending Ken Ham and the support he receives from his followers as being bad for Kentucky, bad for science education, bad for the U.S., and thereby bad for humankind—I do not feel I’m exaggerating when I express it this strongly.
In hindsight, it is, perhaps, understandable that he would think this, but Ham is a showman, who plays for high-stakes and, because creationists are normally not given the time of day by your average scientist, this presented a golden opportunity to tear down what he honestly believes is the heart of the philosophical naturalism that is turning people away from God. That Nye is not known for his church-going behavior only added fuel to the fire. It didn't matter how important Nye thought the debate was.

The other concern, voiced going in, was that, while Ken Ham eats, lives and breathes creationism, Nye was not an expert in this field.  He writes:
I am by no means an expert on most of this. Unlike my beloved uncle, I am not a geologist. Unlike my academic colleague and acquaintance Richard Dawkins, I am not an evolutionary biologist. Unlike my old professor Carl Sagan or my fellow Planetary Society Board member and dear friend Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am not an expert on astrophysics. I am, however, a science educator. In this situation, our skeptical arguments are not the stuff of PhDs. It’s elementary science and common sense. That’s what I planned to rely on. That’s what gave me confidence.
What might seem like common sense to him is, by way of every poll I have ever seen, not common sense to a good deal of the population, especially the evangelical Christian subset, the direct taxonomic descendents of the fundamentalists from the 1920s.  This is, for many people, no less than a struggle between good and evil and, as I mentioned a bit back, modern evangelical fundamentalism has gotten to the point where if science is seen to conflict with scripture at all, it is to be regarded with skepticism and suspicion and rejected, if necessary.  Nye should have seen this as an uphill battle going in.

Nye did, however, have charitable things to say about his debate opponent:
I was and am respectful of Ken Ham’s passion. At a cognitive level, he believes what he says. He really means it, when he says that he has “a book” that supersedes everything you and I and his parishioners can observe everywhere in nature around us. I respected that commitment; I used it to drive, what actors call, my “inner monologue.” I did not choose, as I was advised, to attack, attack, attack. My actor’s preparation helped me keep things civil and be respectful of Mr. Ham despite what struck me as his thoughtless point of view. I’m sure it influenced the countless people who’ve written to me and come up to me in public to express their strong and often enthusiastic support. Thank you all.
I am also respectful of Ken Ham's passion but not the results that it produces. I am not respectful of the untruths (here and here) that he and his organization perpetuate in the service of his passion. I am not respectful of his disdain and condescension of mainstream scientists, and I am not respectful of his attacks on other Christians (here and here) who are also trying to find their way in the science/faith maze. Consequently, it is difficult for me to be respectful of Ken Ham as a person, no matter what he believes.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Your Inner Fish Part 2, on PBS Tonight

Don't forget to watch part 2 of Your Inner Fish, on PBS tonight at 10:00.  The first episode was very good and is a great companion to the book.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Poland Welcomes a New Religion...Maybe

In a recent court decision, a Warsaw court overturned a lower court's decision to deny the request by a group of people to petition that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be an accepted religion in the country.  Heather Saul of The Independent reports:
A group of Pastafarians who gathered outside the court shouting "pasta" during the hearing on Tuesday welcomed the ruling.

In January, Pastafarian minister Christopher Schaeffer was sworn into the Pomfret New York Town Council this week with a colander on his head throughout the ceremony to represent his unique religious beliefs.
They now have two more months to gather the necessary documents to prove that their religion should be taken seriously.  What is mentioned briefly in the article is that this movement is a direct response to the Intelligent Design supporters’ statement that, while the original ID movement had strong links to organized Christianity, in fact, the “Intelligent Designer” could be anything or anyone. The response was, then, “If this is so, then we believe that the universe was created by a flying spaghetti monster” and Pastafarianism was born.  As parodies go, it is pretty good and the ID folks only have themselves to blame for this, since they refused to be up-front about something that everybody else on the planet knew: that the “designer” is the God of the Bible. They cannot, of course, do this because if they did, ID as a “legitimate” course of study would be dead in the water as far as the public schools are concerned. They have very nearly given the game away recently by linking ID to “essential Christian doctrines”  in a conference at a Baptist church north of Houston.  In the wake of parodies like the CFSM, it will be interesting to see where the ID movement goes from here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Teach Both. Let The Kids Decide

Rick Perry once told kids that they teach both evolution and creationism in Texas “…. because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” Why stop there?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Kate Mulgrew Was Snookered

Io9 is running a story that Kate Mulgrew does not, in fact, believe that the sun orbits the earth and that she was duped into appearing in the film The Principles. From her Facebook page:
“I understand there has been some controversy about my participation in a documentary called THE PRINCIPLE. Let me assure everyone that I completely agree with the eminent physicist Lawrence Krauss, who was himself misrepresented in the film, and who has written a succinct rebuttal in SLATE. I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism. More importantly, I do not subscribe to anything Robert Sungenis has written regarding science and history and, had I known of his involvement, would most certainly have avoided this documentary. I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that. I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused. Kate Mulgrew”
As I mentioned to a reader, Charleton Heston also regretted doing a “documentary” called The Mysterious Origins of Man, but I cannot find his press statement on it. As Ms. Mulgrew mentioned, Lawrence Krauss was also misrepresented. Here is part of his statement on Slate:
I have no recollection of being interviewed for such a film, and of course had I known of its premise I would have refused. So, either the producers used clips of me that were in the public domain, or they bought them from other production companies that I may have given some rights to distribute my interviews to, or they may have interviewed me under false pretenses, in which case I probably signed some release. I simply don’t know.

Many people have suggested I litigate. But this approach seems to me to be completely wrong because it would elevate the profile of something that shouldn’t even rise to the level of popular discussion. The best thing we can all do when faced by nonsense like that, or equivalent silliness promoted by biblical fundamentalists who claim that science supports a literal interpretation of the Bible, is to ignore it in public forums, and not shine any light on the authors of this trash.
And everyone breathes a sigh of relief.  It is unfortunate/tragic/sad that people like Sungenis have to resort to subterfuge to get people to agree with their crackpot ideas.  We should have known better.

Hat tip to Jason Broyles

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

More on Vouchers

One of my readers pointed out that, as much as I castigate politicians such as Paul Broun, who has publicly stated that evolutionary and big bang theories are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” they don't get into the offices they hold without the votes of the people.  That someone such as Broun can rise to hold a position on a science and technology committee is truly astounding, in and of itself and points to gaping holes in our selection processes.  But, back to the people.  Politico is the latest outlet to run a story on the controversial voucher programs being run by an increasing number of states.  Stephanie Simon writes:
One set of books popular in Christian schools calls evolution “a wicked and vain philosophy.” Another derides “modern math theorists” who fail to view mathematics as absolute laws ordained by God. The publisher notes that its textbooks shun “modern” breakthroughs — even those, like set theory, developed back in the 19th century. Math teachers often set aside time each week — even in geometry and algebra — to explore numbers in the Bible. Students learn vocabulary with sentences like, “Many scientists today are Creationists.”
I am assuming that the information being disseminated here comes from the Creationist Voucher Database, compiled by Zack Kopplin, which is a great resource.  Tennessee currently does not have a voucher program but it is being promoted in the state house even as we speak.  Ms. Simon remarks that the voucher support program is very well-organized:
They’ve spent heavily to campaign for sympathetic lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans — often targeting primary races to knock out anti-voucher candidates early. They’ve staged rallies packed with cheering families. They’ve funded local advocacy groups such as North Carolina Citizens for Educational Freedom and Hoosiers for Economic Growth. And they’ve worked closely with black ministers to boost demand for vouchers in African-American neighborhoods.
Wanting a better education for your kids is a noble idea, and if you think your kids are getting an education that is not only bad but reflects world views that are distinctly not yours, then you need to act.  There are schools that promote a Christian world view but still teach good science.  There are also curricula that are oriented this way.  But they swim against the tide.

The principle problem is one of the tragic failures of modern evangelical fundamentalism: that modern science can conflict with scripture and that, as a result, it is to be either regarded skeptically or, worse, dismissed altogether.  How did we get here? 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Slightly Off-Topic: Kate Mulgrew To Narrate Geocentrism Movie

The former Kathryn Janeway, of the starship Voyager, Kate Mulgrew (otherwise known as Mrs. Columbo) has gone down the rabbit hole.  She will be narrating a film by Robert Sungenis, titled The Principle.  The Daily Mail reports:
The film, set for release this spring, was partially backed by a well known anti-Semitic and far-right conservative, Robert Sungenis, who runs a blog called 'Galileo Was Wrong.'

Scientists such as Michio Kaku, Lawrence Krauss, and Max Tegmart all appear in the trailer, discussing the Earth's unique characteristics that allow it to sustain life.

Sungenis himself appears in the trailer to offer some of his conspiracy theory.

'You can go on some websites of NASA to see that they've started to take down stuff that might hint to a geocentric universe,' he tells the audience.
I wrote a post on Sungenis a bit back, when the geocentrism issue appeared on the radar and the post generated some chatter.  According to the story in the Daily Mail, Sungenis has also been tied to anti-holocaust rhetoric and they provide a link to this article, which relates this bit of unpleasantness:
Sungenis, who was born into a Catholic family but became a Protestant before returning to the Catholic Church in 1992, was taken seriously in mainstream Catholic circles for many years, even producing two religious series for EWTN, a Catholic television station. That ended in 2002, when Sungenis published a 33,000-word, anti-Semitic attack on a joint statement by the National Council of Synagogues and the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs that criticized the Catholic Church's history of attempting to convert Jews. The article repeated a series of ancient anti-Semitic canards, relied on anti-Semites like Father Denis Fahey as authorities, and even praised Fahey and Father Charles Coughlin (the viciously anti-Semitic "radio priest" of the 1930s) as "dedicated Catholic priests who lived impeccable lives and defended Holy Mother Church from every sort of Satanic deception." As a result, EWTN pulled Sungenis' TV series and removed all mention of him from its Web site; in a similar way, Envoy magazine also removed Sungenis from its website. Since then, Sungenis has gone even further into anti-Semitic conspiracy-mongering, frequently reminding people that the 1911 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia "predicts the anti-Christ will come from Jewry."
As career moves go, this is not a good one for Ms. Mulgrew, who should know better than to get mixed up with these people.

P.S. Ordinarily I would not touch things that come from the Southern Poverty Law Center, since they are rabidly partisan, sensationalistic, and lean far to the left of MSNBC.  Insomuch as I can tell, they have gotten their fact right here but I have not dug deep. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Kenneth Miller: Darwin, Design, and the Catholic Faith

Kenneth Miller has a lengthy post for Beliefnet on evolution and faith.  There is no date on the page, so I don't know when it came out.  He writes:
Science is, just as John Paul II said, silent on the issue of ultimate purpose, an issue that lies outside the realm of scientific inquiry. This means that biological evolution, correctly understood, does not make the claim of purposelessness. It does not address what Simpson called the "deeper problem," leaving that problem, quite properly, to the realm of faith.
The rest of the argument is, in many ways, a boiled down version of the one he proposed in Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, where he argued that contingency is built into the system. He writes:
The neo-creationists of intelligent design, unlike Popes Benedict and John Paul, argue against evolution on every level, claiming that a "designer" has repeatedly intervened to directly produce the complex forms of living things. This view stands in sharp contradiction to the words of a 2004 International Theological Commission document cited by the Cardinal. In reality, this document carries a ringing endorsement of the "widely accepted scientific account" of life's emergence and evolution, describes the descent of all forms of life from a common ancestor as "virtually certain," and echoes John Paul II's observation of the "mounting support" for evolution from many fields of study.

More important, the same document makes a critical statement on how we should interpret scientific studies of the complexity of life: "whether the available data support inferences of design or chance cannot be settled by theology. But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence."
Miller is coming at this from the back side. It is a common misunderstanding that evolution is a random process. This is argued by Cardinal Schönborn (who he quotes in the post as calling evolution an “unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection” ) as well as quite a few Discovery Institute fellows like David Klinghoffer and David Berlinski.  Here is the problem: natural selection is measurable and it is directional.  Therefore, if you want to argue that evolution is an “unguided, unplanned process,” than the forces that act on plants and animals in nature are unplanned and unguided as well. I doubt any Christian wants to go down that road theologically.   This is exactly contrary to what Miller is suggesting.  He argues that the events in nature are not random, as is generally conceived by philosophical naturalism, but are, instead, contingent in ways that we, perhaps, cannot understand.

The point he is making is that the scientific enterprise cannot examine this problem.  It is a theological one, not a scientific one.  It is not just that at a gross level we cannot use science to prove or disprove God's existence, but that even at a subatomic level, there is no certainty.  We act on faith, and, sometimes, that has to be enough. 

Friday, April 04, 2014

South Carolina: Naming the State Fossil

An eight-year-old girl by the name of Olivia McConnell had a great idea: suggest that the Columbian Mammoth, common to the state during the Pleistocene, be named the state fossil.  Great idea, right?  Not when politics and creationism get involved.  According to Ron Barnett of USA Today:
The Columbian mammoth survived an ice age, but whether it can survive the South Carolina Senate remains to be seen.

The elephant-sized mammal that once roamed this part of the world is on a path to become the state's official fossil. But it faces a new challenge this week, and the dream of 8-year-old Olivia McConnell who suggested that the Legislature adopt a state fossil hangs in the balance.

Last week, state Sen. Kevin Bryant tried unsuccessfully to insert a Bible verse into the bill. This week, the Republican from Anderson, S.C., is putting forward a new amendment that refers to the animal “as created on the sixth day with the beasts of the field.”

“I think it's an appropriate time to acknowledge the creator,” he said.
Every time that I read that the number of creationists who are democrats is more than you think, I have to wonder: “Yes, but did all of the Republicans who are creationists end up in the state house??”  It is one thing to honor the creator.  It is another to honor the creator with language that is patently young earth creationist in its origin.  The irony, of course, is that this language would be inserted over the traditional understanding of the Columbian mammoth, described originally by Falconer in 1857, which is that it went extinct around 13,000 years ago and was part of an adaptive radiation of Elephas genera beginning around 25 million years ago from what later became East Asia.  The other half of the clade is the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus. This would be jarring, to say the least. 

Thursday, April 03, 2014

More Problems Concerning Ball State University and Intelligent Design

Questions have been raised regarding meetings between Jo Ann Gora, the current president of Ball State University, and Indiana legislators which concern her public stance on the teaching of Intelligent Design.  Christopher Stephens of Ball State Daily writes:
Ball State’s decision to meet in private with lawmakers to discuss concerns about teaching intelligent design is raising questions with some students and professors.

Dom Caristi, a professor of telecommunications, said Indiana’s Open Door Law dictates how accessible official government meetings must be, as well as those involving state employees. He said Thursday’s planned meeting between lawmakers and university officials falls into a gray area within this code.

Indiana code 5-14-1.5, called the Open Door Law, states that the official action of public agencies be conducted and taken openly. This is to ensure that people are able to fully be informed, according to the code.
At issue, apparently, is how representative these meetings actually are and whether they have bearing on the overall legislature in terms of any action. I think that neither party does themselves any favors by having these meetings in private, since the issue of ID at Ball State made the national papers.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Your Inner Fish Coming to a TV Set Near You

PBS has hopped on the bandwagon that Cosmos is on and is airing a miniseries based on Neil Shubin's great book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. John Easton of the University of Chicago News writes:
The three-part series, which premieres nationwide April 9, brings to life Shubin’s best-selling and highly readable 2008 book, Your Inner Fish. Chicago’s dramatic scenery is a star of the show, as are the UChicago classrooms and laboratories in which Shubin explains anatomical links between seemingly disparate relatives, including the brains of humans and sharks.

The episodes, made possible by a partnership between Shubin, Tangled Bank Productions of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Public Broadcasting Service, also follow Shubin and fossil-hunting colleagues on expeditions to the Arctic, the deserts of Ethiopia and the high plains of South Africa.
This looks very promising. I read Shubin's book and it is both informative and humorous (I laughed for ten minutes at the example of the generation of full bozos.)  If the series lives up to the book, it is something I will have my kids watch with me. Hopefully, unlike Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey—which spares no expense at pointing out how “primitive” religion is—the Neil Shubin series will be more philosophically neutral.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Some Perspective on the School Vouchers Controversy

David Harsanyi, at the Federalist, has an article on the controversy involving school vouchers being used to teach creationism and suggests that it is a mountain  where a molehill actually exists.  He further suggests that this is being used by the organized establishment to attack school choice.  He writes:
Yes,14 states spend “nearly $1 billion” of taxpayer tuition on “hundreds of religious schools” that teach kids the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. This would be more troubling if we didn’t spend hundreds of billions every year not teaching millions of kids how to read. Voucher programs offer a wide variety of choices for parents, unlike the closed, failing districts schools that so many kids are trapped in. As of now, public schools spend around $638 billion on around 55 million students but only 250,000 students – almost all of them poor — are free to use vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. Of those kids, the vast majority do not attend schools with curriculums that feature intelligent design. Yet, judging from all the “special investigations” of creationism in schools, you might be under the impression it was the most pressing problem faced by educators. I suspect that untold numbers of parents would sacrifice their children to the Gods of Creationism if [it] meant they could attend safe and high-achieving schools. A lot of these schools score well. But that’s not the choice, either.
It is absolutely no secret that the vast majority of these schools are better than their public school counterparts and, yes, these parents are very grateful for the opportunity to put their kids in schools that are safe and good.  I support school vouchers, generally, but I see a philosophical problem here.  In the process of supporting the notion of school choice for parents, what is being lost is what is being taught.  We run the risk of becoming so enamored of our ability to pick and choose where we want our kids to go to school that we forget that there are quite a few schools out there that do teach young earth creationism.

Young Earth Creationism is bad science

It puts our kids at a disadvantage by setting them back in all areas of science and fills their heads with wrong-headed ideas. As a scientist, I have a moral obligation not just to teach my kids good science, but to advocate the teaching of it in the schools. Having the ability to put your kids in the school of your choice is of no value if the science they are being taught is wrong.

As a family, we are insulated from this directly but are part of a similar tug-of-war.  Because I want my kids to have a better education, we have them enrolled in a home school curriculum.  For the most part, it is exceptional, with plenty of challenges and intellectual rigor.  But, while the science curriculum is at peace with old earth creationism, it leans toward intelligent design as a world-view.  I have already corrected some of the wrong notions that my kids have come home with and my oldest daughter, who is leaning heavily toward botany or biology, and I have had candid conversations about evolution.  The teachers at the school (the ones that teach science, anyway) are familiar with my views on evolution and don't push my kids in class to reject them.  By the same token, I don't have my kids questioning their teachers or the view points of other kids in the class.  That is not their place.  So far, we have managed a Mexican Stand-off.  Soon, however, my daughter will outgrow the current curriculum and begin to discover why, as Theodosius Dobzhansky stated: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”1 I will be ready for that time.

1Dobzhansky, T (1973) Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. American Biology Teacher, v. 35: 125-129