Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Blogging will be extremely light this week. I am playing house dad while my wife looks after her parents, one of whom just had neurosurgery. That means i am watching after four children under the age of nine for the rest of the week. I will post when I can.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Houston Chronicle: "Board's actions could put students at a disadvantage"

The Houston Chronicle has an editorial on the Texas School Board and their decisions in hiring six people to head a panel to evaluate the science standards for the state curriculum. They are quite clear on their position:

It appears, however, that some members of the State Board of Education are working on a different agenda. Last week, they appointed three anti-evolution activists, including a leader of the "intelligent design" religious campaign, to a six-member panel that will review proposed new science curriculum standards.

The new standards will shape how science education is taught in Texas for the next decade, and it would be a terrible mistake to water down the teaching of evolution in any way.

Read the whole thing. Hat tip to Little Green Footballs.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Pushing Hominids Back in China

New evidence suggests that homids were present in China as early as 1.7 million years ago. An article in the ThaiIndian relates this, regarding the layer where the hominid remains were originally discovered in 1973:

The new team traced that sediment layer - or time horizon - throughout the basin, collecting 318 rock samples from it. The researchers reported that the fossils came from a layer of rock just above a magnetic landmark known as the Olduvai-Matuyama reversal boundary, which is at least 1.77 million years old. This makes the fossil site slightly younger, about 1.7 million years old. This age estimate represents “the oldest definite fossil and archaeological evidence of early hominins in China and mainland East Asia,” according to co-author Rick Potts, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Taken together, these dates from at least three fossil sites are convincing many researchers that early humans were moving rapidly across Asia 1.77 million to 1.66 million years ago.

Another part of the puzzle. Cool.

The Elephant in the Room

I am posting one more review of Expelled, which is now out on DVD, because the reviewer mentions something missing from the other reviews that I read, which harped on the film-making of the movie and the one-sidedness of the presentation. This review, by A.J. Hakari, in Blogcritics Magazine, instead, addresses what is missing from the prosecution:

In not a single one of its 97 minutes does the film provide a valid argument as to why intelligent design should be accepted. Instead, Expelled spends its time depicting those who oppose it as being part of an atheistic conspiracy to rid the world of all religious thoughts. This movie discusses Darwinists the same way that Ann Coulter refers to liberals, as if they all travel in packs just waiting to pounce on and discredit anyone who disagrees with them. Virtually the entire film is one story after another about how the big, bad scientific community is out to put the kibosh on anyone in the academic world who dares even mention intelligent design. But Expelled does nothing to counter its subject's detractors, rather trying to win its argument not by being right but by making the competition look as bad as possible.

No theory, no science. The other great comment about the "new atheists" is:

I have no doubt that there are those a little too trigger-happy when it comes to shooting down intelligent design, those who aren't willing to give it even a little consideration. But these people are all that Expelled talks to, and using figures like Richard Dawkins to represent the entire scientific community is like saying Charles Manson is indicative of all Californians.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

If You Are in Vermont...

There is a performance of "Clarence Darrow's Search For Justice" in the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center, in Burlington. Darrow, if you will recall, was the defense attorney for John Scopes in the famous trial in 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee. It sounds interesting.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Lone Palaeontologist on the "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism" List

The Discovery Institute is publishing and pushing a list of scientists who dissent from "Darwinism." The tag line reads:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

Aside from the fact that that is a poor definition of evolution, leaving out genetic drift, adaptive peaks and valleys, allopatric and sympatric speciation, evo-devo and many other areas of study, who populates the list? Well, I found 13 physicists, 1 plasma physicist, 10 biochemists, 24 chemists, 8 engineers, 7 mathematicians, 2 psychologists, 13 geneticists, and 5 medical doctors. I found one palaeontologist. Who is he? He is Omer Faruk Noyan, from the Celal Bayar University in Turkey. Its page can be found here. A trip to the English version found many out of date or dead links. The publication list is three years old. So, I went to Web of Science. He does publish, sporadically (like yours, truly), mostly in the Triassic on conodonts. I found four articles in the last eighteen years. He has recently produced something in Nature Precedings, a paper on the emergence of modern humans and their relationship to the preceding Neandertals. It is oddly constructed and oddly formatted but I have not had a chance to review it yet. It is here. It does not appear that he is a creationist in the YEC mold, but rather an ID sympathizer.

More on Tiktaalik

Little Green Footballs reports on new analyses of Tiktaalik roseae and the characteristics of it that are intermediate, morphologically. In it, he quotes a New York Times story, which reads, in part:

“Our work demonstrates that the head of these animals was becoming more solidly constructed and, at the same time, more mobile with respect to the body across this transition,” Dr. Daeschler said.

Dr. Shubin said Tiktaalik was “still on the fish end of things, but it neatly fills a morphological gap and helps to resolve the relative timing of this complex transition.”

For example, fish have no neck but “we see a mobile neck developing for the first time in Tiktaalik,” Dr. Shubin said.

“When feeding, fish orient themselves by swimming, which is fine in deep water, but not for an animal whose body is relatively fixed, as on the bottom of shallow water or on land,” he added. “Then a flexible neck is important.”

More pieces of the puzzle. Yay.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Something More to Read

Reader Arv Edgeworth has just sent me his book Dismantling Evolution Made Easy and has asked me to read it. I won't post the link for it on my blog since until such time as he says that I may. It is just 84 pages so I will tackle it this morning. A cursory glance at the first page suggests that he has defined evolution very broadly, incorporating such disparate topics such as the Big Bang, the origin of life, and biological evolution, itself. He also refers to it as "evolutionist' faith." My empirical mind seizes up at that phrase but i will unlock it as best I can.

The Creation Museum One Year Later

According to Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis and guiding light behind the Petersburg, Kentucky creation museum, success has been overwhelming. The International Herald Tribune reports that over 550 thousand people in a little over a year, according to the museum. So, what has been the local effect?

State education officials said they have seen no sign of students challenging science teachers in their classrooms based on conclusions drawn from visits to the Creation Museum.

"It's not been a huge issue. In fact it's almost a nonissue for public schools," said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. "Teachers have been dealing with these things long before the Creation Museum came into being."

The Creation Museum doesn't draw nearly the numbers of visitors as the nation's top science museums, which boast larger facilities and government funding. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington attracted 5.8 million visitors in 2006; the Children's Museum in Indianapolis brought in 1.2 million that year, according to a list compiled by Forbes magazine.

Still, Ham can be proud of the draw that it has been. It has clearly been a success.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Don McLeroy: Evolution Doesn't Apply to Biology

UWire is reporting that scientists in Texas continue to be nervous about the upcoming science standards that will take effect early next year. They note:

More than 800 scientists from Texas signed a document in September, titled “Scientists for a Responsible Curriculum in Texas Public Schools,” to support the teaching of evolution.

The statement said instruction on evolution is vital to understanding all the biological sciences. It also said that a sound core curriculum encourages valid critical thinking and scientific reasoning by leaving out all references to strengths and weaknesses in biological theories and explanations, which politicians have used to introduce supernatural explanations into science courses.

“I have problems with what they said,” said Don McLeroy, chairman of the State Board of Education. “Evolution is vital to understanding a lot of the sociological sciences, not the biological sciences. To say that evolution is vital to understanding biology is simply not true.”

How did this man, who is so blissfully ignorant of the cornerstone of modern biology, become the chairman of the State Board of Education in Texas?? The sheer ignorance of the statement is mind-boggling. The one area to which you cannot extrapolate evolution is the social sciences. He has it exactly backwards. If there is a recall procedure in Texas for the Board of Education, it needs to be used. Now.

Creationism in Australian Schools: Under the Radar?

The Fairfax Regional Network is reporting that there is little monitoring of Christian schools as to whether or not they are teaching creationism, which is not part of the Australian school curriculum and not evolution, which is. They write:

The head of the NSW Board of Studies, John Bennett, told a NSW parliamentary committee yesterday that the education watchdog relied on the Christian schools network to assess whether schools kept to the NSW curriculum, which forbids the teaching of creationism in science classes.

Dr Bennett said teaching creationism was not outlawed in schools, but those that taught creationism were obliged to make clear to students that it was not part of the curriculum and could not be part of an examination assessment.

Responding to questions from a NSW Greens MP, John Kaye, he said that apart from an inspection once every five years and spot checks, the board also relied on individual complaints.

This is likely what will happen in the US in states that pass "academic freedom bills."

Scientists: Both Candidates are Okay

The AP is reporting that both presidential candidates approach science in a vastly different way than George Bush does. They write:

Both presidential candidates — Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama — offer policies farther from the president than they are from each other. They advocate mandatory caps on the main global warming gas and favor federal funding for embryonic stem cell research — positions opposite the Bush Administration.

Obama and McCain promise to seek, not censor, government science advice and to restore the White House science adviser's office.

The differences between them are more notable in the nuances of policy than in the broad brush of campaigns. Both have promised more money for scientific research, though the ongoing financial crisis may make that tough.

Yes, especially if taxes go up. Alot of people seem to be saying the same thing about the Bush White House:

Obama's science advisers, such as former National Institutes of Health director Harold Varmus, mostly paint differences between their candidate and President Bush, not McCain. Varmus criticized what he called "the Bush administration's overall war on science."

It hasn't been good, that's for sure.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Communicating Science

David Depew, who wrote a truly topflight book called Darwinism Evolving, which traces the history of evolutionary thought, has written a guest column in the Iowa Press-Citizen called The Problem With Communicating Science. He has some provocative things to say:

Some people think that the decades following Sputnik were something of a Golden Age of science communication in America. But lurking within the communicative practices that sprang up at that time were attitudes and assumptions that may have contributed to our current worries.

Back then a trickle-down notion of science communication was taken for granted. All that the journalist or popular science writer had to do, it was thought, was clothe claims that were assumed to be too difficult for the weak lay mind to understand in a few superficial metaphors.

When I was young, I was told that only five people in the world could understand Einstein's theory of relativity. What a bizarre claim and what a discouraging thing to tell a kid.

Given the assumed deficiency of the public illustrated in this claim, no wonder popular science writing usually bypassed evidence altogether and instead promised that practical goodies of all sorts would flow smoothly from the money the public had spent on the research that produced the claim -- as if that were the point of scientific inquiry.

This formula still is pervasive today

Indeed it is.

Between God and Rationality

Paul Vallely writes in the Statesman that the gulf between scientists on one hand the general public on the other has been growing for years and has some thoughts on it, including the alarmist reaction to Michael Reiss:

The hapless Reiss made it clear that he insists creationism is scientific nonsense. But a handful of the Royal Society’s most eminent members began a campaign to have him sacked. Sir Harry Kroto, Sir Richard Roberts and Sir John Sulston said in a letter to the president of the Royal Society, “We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome.” We must all now be on the look out, it seems, for reverends under the beds.

This mirrors, as Vallely says, the ruminations of Barbara Forrest, who argues that current attempts to "teach the controversy" (the currently popular phrase) are, in reality, nothing more than attempts to bring religion-based ideas into the science class.

It also gives ammunition to researchers like Richard Dawkins, who has been, perhaps the most polarizing influence on the debate thus far. About that, Vallely writes:

John Hedley Brooke, who recently retired as the first Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, is more sanguine. “These eruptions take place from time to time historically,” he shrugs. “Dawkins is just a throwback to 19th-century rationalism. He has a strong emotional antagonism that is very indiscriminate and treats all kinds of religion the same. A lot of fine distinctions get lost in the polemics. The problem is that it is all a cumulative process in which the extremes feed off one another.”
“Paradoxically, Dawkins is the biggest recruiter for creationism in this country,” says Denis Alexander. Recently, he says, Bill Demcksi [sic], a leading US creationist, e-mailed Dawkins to thank him for his assistance. “The danger is that all this polarisation will make some believers more anti-science, which is not a clever move tactically.”

Dawkins doesn't seem to care. For those of us that are Christians, we should.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

How About Someone that's an Actual Palaeontologist, Please?

The Discovery Institute has, on its Evolution News blog three more people that have doubts about evolution. One is a sociologist Steven Fuller, who has written a book called Dissent over Descent. About it, the writer says:

Fuller argues that intelligent design is not anti-science (just anti-establishment), as biological study continues to become more like an engineering project, it will be harder for scientists to deny that life is intelligently designed.

*sigh* another book to read.

The second guy is Ray Bohlin, a molecular biologist and Discovery Institute researcher, who wrote a book called The Natural Limits to Biological Change, in 1984.

The third gentleman is the stuff of Expelled!:

Rodney LeVake, a former high school biology teacher, informally expressed doubts about evolution to a colleague who then reported him to the principal. LeVake ended up losing his biology position, not because he taught creationism or intelligent design, but because he committed a thought crime by doubting Darwinism.

Answers in Genesis has their take on the LeVake affair here:

As we reported earlier (Time magazine gets it wrong again!), LeVake is a Christian biology teacher in Minnesota whose ‘crime’ was simply to expose his students to some of the scientific flaws in evolution. He did not even teach creation but merely brought up problems with evolution. His punishment was removal from his high-school biology classroom (to teach the ‘safer’ subject of general science).

Here is a very short section of a transcript on CNN between LeVake and Kathy Slobogin from 2001:

SLOBOGIN: A few years ago in the small town of Faribault, Minnesota, Levake was promoted to a job he had wanted for years: teaching biology in the local high school. But he ran into trouble with the other biology teachers when he didn't teach evolution. Levake claims he ran out of time in a shortened school year and had to skip the chapters on evolution. The school says the other biology teachers managed to fit them in. When school officials questioned Levake about his future intentions, one thing became clear: He wouldn't teach evolution their way.

LEVAKE: No, I -- I'm not willing to teach evolution as a fact. I'm willing to teach evolution and take a look critically at both sides of the issue. That I -- I feel like I could do.

SLOBOGIN (on camera): Are you bringing your religious beliefs into the classroom?

LEVAKE: No, absolutely not. There is a vast difference between questioning evolution as a theory and teaching science from a religious standpoint.

SLOBOGIN (voice-over): Levake says he's simply trying to expose his students to what he calls holes in the theory of evolution.

LEVAKE: But why would a peacock evolve such a beautiful tail if one of the main purposes of evolution was survival of the fittest?

Funny, that's not what he said in an interview with the AP in 1999:

FARIBAULT, Minn. --- Science teacher Rodney LeVake says believing in evolution is as absurd as thinking the Earth is the center of the universe.

LeVake is speaking over apple pie in a restaurant in this quiet southern Minnesota town of 20,000 that has become the scene of the latest flare-up in the debate about teaching evolution in high school.

"I'd like an evolutionist to look me in the eye," he says, "and tell me one thing about evolution that is true."

Digging a bit deeper reveals that LeVake has a degree in biology education, not biology. He is a product of the education system, not the biological curriculum. I can tell him a whole bunch of things that are true about evolution and if he had a basic background in biology, he could too.

Of course, one wonders why the DI is just now putting him on their honor role since all of the above happened eight to nine years ago. Interestingly, the DI could not come up with an honest-to-goodness, regular, garden-variety biologist who doubts evolution, let alone a palaeontologist.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Evolve...

The Guardian has a tongue-in-cheek article (influenced quite heavily by reading Douglas Adams, I'm sure) on why not continuing to evolve would be a good thing. One of the four points:

1. We're not going backwards. If we're standing still then at least we're not backsliding down the evolutionary ladder, despite whatever anecdotal evidence to the contrary you may have gathered. This is good news. If de-evolution were suddenly to start accelerating rapidly we could all end up as hairy little hominids standing around on all fours in the lobbies of buildings waiting for someone tall enough to come along and push the lift button.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Yoko Ono has dropped her lawsuit.

I Suspect This Happens More Often Than We Think.

An article in the Louisiana Advocate recounts an exchange between their editorial staff and a local pastor is instructive in how these arguments typically go and why there is so much work to be done. They write:

The problem is that individuals such as Pastor Corie simply do not accept the empirical data. They claim that dating methods are inaccurate, that all the fossil hominid evidence is not what paleoanthropologists say it is, that the geologists are all wrong about the age of the Earth, that the astronomers are all wrong about the age of the universe, that biologists and geneticists are all wrong regarding speciation etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Finally, Pastor Corie claims that individuals like myself “will be eternally damned,” and asks God to have mercy upon our souls, since, apparently, data-based reasoning is a sin.

Yes, the gulf is that wide.

Monday, October 06, 2008

More on Texas

Airtightnoodle, who is a Texas science teacher, has a science blog here. He has lots on the controversy as well as other articles. Looks like my kind of place.

Friday, October 03, 2008

More on the Texas Standards

The Houston Chronicle has a slightly different story about the resistance to the Texas Standards. According to the story:

"We are here to support and promote strong, clear, modern science education in Texas schools," said David Hillis, professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin. "Texas public schools should be preparing our kids to succeed in the 21st century, not promoting political and ideological agendas that are hostile to a sound science education."

But it's important for Texas biology teachers to explain the strengths and weaknesses of various theories, including biology, said the board's chairman, Dr. Don McLeroy, R-Bryan.

A panel of experts recently recommended the "strengths and weaknesses" provision remain in astronomy and chemistry but be removed from the updated science curriculum.

"We will probably put it back in," McLeroy said. "If it's viable for astronomy and chemistry, it's good enough for biology."

The unspoken point here is that he thinks that astronomy and chemistry are just fine but evolution is misguided. Dr. McLeroy has stated a number of times he thinks that the theory has weaknesses. I would like to know what those weaknesses are. I believe I will ask him.

Texas Scientists Speak Out

The Dallas Morning News has an article reporting an organized effort on the part of Texas scientists to oppose the changes in the state science guidelines advocating teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. The writer notes:

The State Board of Education is considering new science curriculum standards. It is expected to vote next spring. Because Texas is such a large purchaser of textbooks, its ongoing science debate affects textbooks nationwide.

An academic work group proposed that Texas standards for biology courses eliminate the long-held language of teaching students the "strengths and weaknesses" of theories.

The science coalition supports that language change because it says talking of "weaknesses" of evolution allows for religion-based concepts like creationism and intelligent design to enter the instruction. The Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based group that says it monitors the influence of the religious right, also praises the proposed language change.

But they say they fear State Board of Education members, led by chairman and creationist Don McLeroy, will switch the language back before the final vote.

I think that people on those boards should have to have a minimum amount of knowledge of different subjects. This might be done as an administered test. Being a dentist does not qualify you to lecture on biology.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

"Religulous" and "Expelled!": Same Tactics?

Several people who were interviewed for the new Bill Maher film Religulous are crying 'foul.' According to a story in the Charlotte Observer:

“Bill Maher was quite aggressive in pursuing his atheist agenda,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, which successfully mapped human DNA.

Collins filmed lengthy conversations with Maher about the relationship between faith and science, making “the case that acceptance of evolution is entirely consistent with belief in God,” he said. That conversation apparently ended up on the cutting room floor; Collins appears briefly in the film, discussing a non-science related topic.

“Religulous” is directed by Larry Charles, the man who teamed up with Sacha Baron Cohen to create “Borat,” which drew criticism from its subjects for some of the same deceptive tactics and creative editing.

Maher declined requests for an interview, but explained his tactics to the Los Angeles Times:

“It was simple: We never, ever, used my name,” he told the newspaper. “We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it `A Spiritual Journey.' … At the last second, when the cameras were already rolling, I would show up. So either they'd be seen on camera leaving the interview and lose face or they'd have to talk to me.”

There are many other complaints in the article about the tactics used and the lack of unbiased editing. Given his heavy-handed politics in "Politically Incorrect," this does not surprise me much. It won't get as much press as the same tactics used in "Expelled!" did . That is a shame. All of the anti-religious bile of Christopher Hitchens without any of the wit. And the fact that he is honest about his deception does not make it any better.