Friday, February 26, 2010

Another AGW/Creationism Analogy

Mark Lynas, writing for the New Statesman, argues that the recent "climate gate" scandal may cause a permanent rift between scientists and the general public. He likens this to creationism:
The danger here is that a permanent gap may open up between the general public and the scientific community, distorting policy and damaging people's understanding of the world around them at a basic level. An analogy might be the debate around creationism in the US, where (according to a Pew Centre poll conducted in June 2009) just 32 per cent of adults believe in Darwinian evolution, compared to 87 per cent of scientists.

This may be a politically incorrect thing to say, but it is true nonetheless: climate-change denial, like belief in creationism, is largely (though not entirely) attributable to ignorance. Surveys show that the more a person knows about the subject of climate change, the more likely they are to agree that "human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures".
It is true that poll after poll reveals that as a rule, the percentage of less-educated people that believe in creationism is higher than among those who have more education, certainly here in the United States.

He makes another point, though, that is often glossed over in the debate between those supporting creationism and ID and mainstream biological scientists:
One study, published in January 2009 in the American Geophysical Union's journal Eos, noted that while less than half the general public agreed with the above point, an overwhelming majority of scientists did. Specifically, 82 per cent of climatologists agreed that climate change was real, while 97 per cent of actively publishing climatologists (those involved in generating the latest data) supported this conclusion.

I accept that a sceptic might cite this as evidence of group-think. But surely the chance of statistically trained experts (whose work involves constantly examining real-world climatological data, and each other's work) getting their entire discipline wrong is vanishingly unlikely.
Evolution is accepted by a similar percentage of biologists the world over. The other question, at least to those who espouse ID is this: how is that scientists the world over got physics, chemistry, geology, medicine and engineering absolutely right and managed to get biology crashingly wrong? If you are a creationist, on the other hand, all of the above disciplines got it wrong. All of those scientists, working for hundreds of years, still got it wrong? Not likely.

Now playing: Todd Rundgren - Sons Of 1984
via FoxyTunes

How to Teach Creationism

Education News has a profile of Anu Ojha, of the National Space Centre in England, who argues that one should embrace the teaching of creationism and other "conspiracy theories" in order to teach critical thinking. As the author states:
Internet conspiracy theories and the controversy over creationism should be embraced as opportunities to engage pupils in scientific theory and critical thinking, according to a leading science educationalist.

Anu Ojha, head of education at the National Space Centre in Leicester, argues that the tactic is the best way to “guide our children through the labyrinth of information, misinformation, claim and counterclaim which characterises scientific discourse in the media and online”.

He says that the internet is the main source for scientific, societal and political information for the new generation of “21st century citizens”, born from 1995 onwards.

That leaves them susceptible to unsubstantiated claims such as the idea that the moon landings were faked - believed by a quarter of the British population, according to a poll last year - and that the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre were a Western conspiracy.
You may now pick your jaw up off the ground. A quarter of the population??????? Read the whole thing. This is what Michael Reiss was originally proposing before he was so unceremoniously cut off by the scientific establishment.

It is also the principle reason why, if they really thought the idea through, creationists would not want creationism taught right beside conventional science. Imagine:

Student: "my daddy says that the Grand Canyon formed in a week during the flood."
Teacher: "Well, Johnny, here's how we know that it didn't happen that way."

One argument after another, taken to the cleaners. The problem, of course, is that it would be a colossal waste of time for the teacher, who has better things to do. I would love to offer a high-school level honors class on "Why Creation Science is Wrong."

Now playing: Squirrel Nut Zippers - The Kraken
via FoxyTunes

Food For the Snake

A distant relative of the modern crocodile has been found in the Cerrejon formation in Columbia, dating it to around 60 million years old. The importance for the find lies in that it was probably preyed upon by Titanoboa. The story notes:
While Cerrejonisuchus is not directly related to modern crocodiles, it played an important role in the early evolution of South American rainforest ecosystems, said Jonathan Bloch, a Florida Museum vertebrate paleontologist and associate curator.

"Clearly this new fossil would have been part of the food-chain, both as predator and prey," said Bloch, who co-led the fossil-hunting expeditions to Cerrejon with Smithsonian paleobotanist Carlos Jaramillo. "Giant snakes today are known to eat crocodylians, and it is not much of a reach to say Cerrejonisuchus would have been a frequent meal for Titanoboa. Fossils of the two are often found side-by-side."

Now playing: Stan Getz - Yesterdays
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Steve Martin's Blog: Is there an Evangelical Church Home for the Evolutionary Creationist?

Over at Steve Martin's blog, there is a guest post by Douglas Hayworth on whether or not the EC can find a church home among evangelicals. He writes:
I commend contemporary evangelical churches for their willingness to re-evaluate 20th century assumptions about what the Bible really teaches (i.e., exegesis) and how it applies to our generation (i.e., hermeneutics). Unfortunately, for the most part, they seem rather immature in their methodology. Simply put, the church's fundamental problem is its sophomoric understanding of critical realism. Somehow, all truth claims, whether scientific or scriptural, are naively understood as speaking the same language and competing for identical territory.
This tends to spill over into scripture interpretation as well, as it all tends to get the same brush. Consequently, Psalms get interpreted the same way that the Primeval History is.The other week, my Bible Study Fellowship leader commented at great length about how Jesus spoke symbolically and never spoke directly about anything, which resulted in the disciples standing around and saying "Huh?" much of the time. This is the same man who remarked in our study of Genesis that the entire Primeval History had to be taken absolutely literally. Huh? Irony completely lost there. Read the whole post. He has some interesting ideas about how to pick a church.

ASA Voices

I am also adding ASA Voices, a blog of American Scientific Affiliation members, which should prove to be quite interesting. The most recent post is on Chromosome 2 fusion, by Terry Gray, who is also going to be contributing to Steve Martin's Evangelicals, Evolution and the Church series, to which I am also contributing.

Uncommon Descent

I am adding Uncommon Descent to the left hand side list of sites, simply because it is largely the voice of the ID community.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Smithsonian: Discovering Our Ancestors

The March issue of The Smithsonian Magazine has a large spread on the recent advances in human origins, including a large article on the discovery and identification of Ardipithecus ramidus by Ann Gibbons. One of the striking things about the find is the locale in which it took place: literally a palaeoanthropologist's dream come true. Gibbons writes:
As we wait for the Alisera to arrive, White explains that the team returns to this hostile spot year after year because it’s the only place in the world to yield fossils that span such a long stretch of human evolution, some six million years. In addition to Ardi, a possible direct ancestor, it is possible here to find hominid fossils from as recently as 160,000 years ago—an early Homo sapiens like us—all the way back to Ardipithecus kadabba, one of the earliest known hominids, who lived almost six million years ago. At last count, the Middle Awash project, which takes its name from this patch of the Afar desert and includes 70 scientists from 18 nations, has found 300 specimens from seven different hominid species that lived here one after the other.
It is the palaeoanthropological equivalent of the Liaoning shale fossil beds in China that have yielded so many dinosaur remains. Her description of what the remains of Ardipithecus represent is evocative:
One thing that is clear is that these early fossils belong in a class by themselves. These species did not look or act like other known apes or like Lucy and other members of Australopithecus. They were large-bodied ground dwellers that stood up and walked on two legs. But if you watched them move, you would not mistake them for Lucy’s species. They clung to life in the trees, but were poised to venture into more open country.
Becoming human, one slow step at a time. It is a pity that we do not have any more remains of Ardipithecus kadabba, which preceded A. ramidus by around a million years. What kind of individual would that be? Would he or she walk upright? Would we see any incipient hominid characteristics? At this point, quite literally, only God knows.
Now playing: Anthony Phillips - It's All Greek to Me
via FoxyTunes

Who Are These People?

Politico is reporting on a poll of Republicans done by the Daily Kos (okay, stop and think about that one for a minute) that reports on a number of interesting issues:
According to the survey, 36 percent of respondents do not believe the president was born in this country, and 21 percent think the liberal advocacy group ACORN stole the election for Obama.

Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of the Republicans polled, 23 percent, want their state to secede from the union.
It continues:
Fifty-one percent of those polled believe sex education should not be taught in schools; 77 percent want creationism taught in schools; 31 percent want contraception outlawed; and 34 percent believe birth control is “abortion.”
Some comments about these people. These are the same sorts of things that Charles Johnson was saying just before he cut his ties with the right. The poll is of "self-identified" Republicans. Most of the people that I go to church with do not identify themselves as Republicans, they identify themselves as Christians who just happen to vote Republican most of the time. I wonder what a similar poll of self-identified Democrats would reveal? What percentage would support Code Pink? How many think that Abortion should be on-demand and paid for by the state? How many are self-described socialists?

The point is that most people exist somewhere in the middle. Quite a few people on the right were upset when Don McLeroy and his supporters forced creationism on the School Board of Texas. Further, I know no one who identifies with the Republican party that wants to secede from the union or that believes that birth control is "abortion."

Now playing: Oscar Peterson - C Jam Blues
via FoxyTunes

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Great Divide

Melanie Smith of the Decatur Daily writes on the Great Divide that separates creationism from evolution. While it is mostly a summary of the problems, it does have one quote that is remarkably telling:
A nonprofit in Montgomery, Apologetics Press, holds to strict Bible teaching similar to Answers in Genesis. Apologetics Press publishes books, articles and other materials on creationism and presents conferences.

Its leaders believe God made the universe in six 24-hour days and the earth is not billions of years old.

“If someone does not choose to believe that, it’s unfortunate and sad, and they will have to deal with God at the Judgment,” said staff member Eric Lyons.
It is difficult to imagine a more heartfelt, strongly believed sentiment than what Mr. Lyons espouses. It is also amazingly pompous, arrogant and myopic and reveals that for Mr. Lyons, this debate has nothing to do with science. If it did, he wouldn't bring eternal judgment into the mix. Another sad commentary on an increasingly polarized debate.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stephen Barr: "The End of Intelligent Design?"

Over at First Things, Stephen Barr has a post titled The End of Intelligent Design? His opening paragraph is brutal:
It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.
Equally problematic is the fact that, as practiced, Intelligent design functions more as an anti-science than science. One of the principle goals of science is to posit hypotheses that can be tested to see if they are supported by the available evidence. Intelligent design, on the other hand, simply states that if hypothesis x is wrong, then hypothesis y must be correct. That is not how science works. Maybe hypothesis x is wrong, but we don't know whether or not hypothesis y is correct. This is especially a problem if hypothesis y is not testable. Barr very eloquently describes this conundrum:
But whereas the advance of science continually strengthens the broader and more traditional version of the design argument, the ID movement’s version is hostage to every advance in biological science. Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous “explanatory filter” of William A. Dembski, one finds “design” by eliminating “law” and “chance” as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature.
What is also typically not mentioned by those who are promoting ID is that only some of the created order is subject to the ID interpretation. As Denis Alexander points out:
One of the movement’s most influential spokespersons, Bill Dembski, specifically distinguishes the central core of ID from the historical design arguments alluded to above. For whereas traditional design arguments perceive the whole universe to be designed by God, ID proponents argue that certain components of the world around us are designed whereas others are not. Dembski suggests that the universe may be likened to an oil painting. Some parts of the painting result from ‘natural causes’ whereas other parts are due to ‘design’. The designed components correspond to various biological systems which, it is suggested, could not have arisen by ‘chance’ and are therefore characterised by ‘irreducible complexity’. Dembski suggests that “there has to be a reliable way to distinguish between events or objects that result from purely natural causes and events or objects whose emergence additionally requires the help of a designing intelligence…at issue is whether natural causes are supplemented or unsupplemented by design.
In order for this model to work, those promoting ID would have to say that, while there are some areas of creation that don't look "designed," they are and that God chose only to make certain areas of His creation look "designed." This, of course, means that there may be areas of creation that look "designed" but aren't. Numerous theological problems begin to emerge from this kind of thinking and, as Barr notes, this perspective has not changed the minds of scientists a bit, only annoyed them. Science certainly cannot function in such an atmosphere. Read the whole thing.

Now playing: Tony Banks - The Border
via FoxyTunes

Slightly Off-Topic: Top 25 Science TV Shows of All Time

Blogger Carolyn Friedman has a post on her blog call the "Top 25 Science TV Shows of All Time." Much to her credit, she has Babylon 5 on there and doesn't have Lost in Space. I would personally put Bab5 as being one of the best shows in any genre that I have ever seen. About LIS, writer David Gerrold once wrote that it "reached trash into millions of homes for five achingly long years."

Let her know what you think.

Now playing: The Alan Parsons Project - No Answers Only Questions (Final Version)
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Of Humans and Defects

PhysOrg has an interview with John Avise, world renowned geneticist and evolutionary biologist about his new book Inside the Human Genome. He is asked two interesting questions and ID and religion:
Q: How does scientific evidence of human imperfection contradict intelligent design?

A: Proponents of intelligent design understandably focus on the many beauties of life, claiming that smooth-working biological traits prove direct creation by a supernatural deity. However, natural selection in conjunction with genetic processes can also produce complex biological systems that usually function well. So both natural selection and intelligent design are consistent with the appearance of biological craftsmanship. Serious biological imperfections, on the other hand, can only logically be expected of nonsentient evolutionary processes that are inherently sloppy and error-prone. They're more troublesome to rationalize as overt mistakes by a fallible God.
This is an argument that has been made against ID for some time. Neil Shubin describes the tortuous journey of the facial and trigeminal nerves in his book Your Inner Fish. Literature abounds on ERVs, which have incorporated themselves into our genome and become indispensable, despite having a viral origin. Work on pseudogenes has revealed that much of the human genome simply doesn't work anymore. These are hard to square with an intelligent design model.

About how to view God in the process, he says this:
Q: Why do you think theologians should welcome evolutionary discoveries?

A: Theodicy is the age-old conundrum of how to reconcile a just God with a world containing evils and flaws. With respect to biological imperfections, evolution can emancipate religion from the shackles of theodicy. No longer need we feel tempted to blaspheme an omnipotent deity by making him directly responsible for human frailties and physical shortcomings, including those we now know to be commonplace at the molecular and biochemical levels. No longer need we be apologists for God in regard to the details of biology. Instead, we can put the blame for biological flaws squarely on the shoulders of evolutionary processes. In this way, evolutionary science can help return religion to its rightful realm - not as a secular interpreter of the biological minutiae of our physical existence, but rather as a respectable counselor on grander philosophical issues that have always been of ultimate concern to theologians.
This is similar to the evolving creation of Polkinghorne and, while having more than a hint of deistic undertones, is common among theologians. In my experience, Christians tend to fall into three camps about theodicy. Some believe that everything that is evil in the world derives from the fall of Adam and that only the new kingdom and new earth will make these things right. Others argue that, while the Garden of Eden was real, the very nature of life dictates that there must have been death even there (Genesis, after all, does not say anything about the animals not eating each other or the local plants). A third perspective regards the Eden story as symbolic and meant to teach the finitude and stupidity of man and woman, while contrasting that with the omnipotence and glory of God. I tend to be somewhere between the second and third perspectives, depending on what day of the week it is. While the latter two perspectives are consonant with Avise's ideas of theodicy, the first is in opposition to it, making God directly responsible for much of the genetic ills in the world. Such is not, I believe, the work of a benevolent and just God.

Does this contradict the passage in Romans 5, where Paul talks about death coming into the world through the sin of Adam? Daniel Harlow writes this:
In Gen. 3:22–23 we read,
Then the LORD God said, “See, the ’AdAm has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and live forever”––therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden . . ."
Evidently, then, God does not want the ’AdAm to live forever, so he exiles him from
the garden. From these verses it seems that mortality is regarded as part of humanity’s original creaturely finitude. Indeed, the story presumes that the man and woman were created mortal; otherwise, the presence of the tree of life would be superfluous. The notion that physical death entered the world only because of human sin seems therefore a mistaken notion, one based in part on a misguided interpretation of Gen. 2:17 and Rom. 5:12.
While we have fallen spiritually and morally, we seem to have the physical creation we were meant to have all along, warts and all. Read the whole interview.

Now playing: Amy Grant - Ask Me
via FoxyTunes

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Challenge to Evolutionary Theory?

Cairns Post has a review of a book by Henry Gobus called Human Ascent, in which some very peculiar things are said. The article, by Daniel Bateman, relates the following from the author:
"So, evolution is a holistic process rather than divided from the dinosaurs, mammals and the human era, which Darwinists see as separate events and not linked together."

Using the saltwater crocodile as an example, Mr Gobus said the predators originated during the age of the dinosaurs, about 240 million years ago.

"With such a significant time period to their credit, and a history in which they must have had innumerable environmental experiences, why haven't crocodiles developed concepts of electronics and the like?
Well, for starters, the fact that the question is being asked in this way makes me suspicious that Mr. Gobus does not understand evolutionary theory. There are very few animals on the planet as well adapted as the crocodile. It has a streamlined body, long snout, extremely powerful jaws, rows of jagged teeth, and a generally nasty disposition. The fact that it has not changed in millions of years ought to be an indication to Mr. Gobus that it is remarkably well adapted to its environment. It hasn't evolved to need electronics because you don't need that kind of thing in the swamp. Evolution acts with what it has and the precursors to crocodiles and alligators were basal reptiles that evolved during the Cretaceous. It never occurs to evolutionary biologists that evolution proceeds differently depending on whether you are a dinosaur or a mammal. I have not read the book and should probably suspend too much judgment but what the author is quoted as saying above is daft.

More on the Freshwater Case

A reader sends a link to an "Accountability in the Media" page about the Freshwater case. Seems like funny business all around.

Now playing: Peter Gabriel - Slow Water
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, February 11, 2010

And Not Just Chinasaurs...

Foxnews has a report on some amazingly preserved spiders found in China. It states, in part:
The creepy crawlies were unearthed by Paul Seldon, a paleontologist from Kansas, who discovered them in China's Daohugou region. This area is rich with fossils because, during the Jurassic era, the fossil bed here was part of a lake in a volcanic region.

Spider fossils from this period are rare, because the arachnids' soft bodies don't preserve well. But Mr Seldon was delighted to discover these specimens had been almost perfectly preserved because they had became trapped in volcanic ash.
They are thought to be around 165 million years ago. Here is the accompanying picture from the Foxnews Story.

Now playing: Peter Gabriel - Across the River (B-Side)
via FoxyTunes

Science Teacher Grants

The Valdosta State University News is reporting that six Georgia local science teachers are being sent to professional development training at the Annual Conference of the Georgia Science Teachers Association. According to the story:
The Georgia Teacher Quality Grant: Strengthening the Teaching of Evolution in South Georgia School has provided more than $80,000 during the last two years to fund workshops and field trips that address ways to present biological evolution effectively in the classroom. Jones said she hopes these professional development opportunities minimize the evolution/creationism controversy among teachers as well as students and parents.

"The point of our project is to emphasize the nature of science as a systematic study of the natural world. Science should not be seen as challenging God or scripture because it does not address anything in the spiritual world,” said Jones, who teaches science education. “We have seen teachers overcome deep personal reticence about evolution and develop the confidence to present this important biological theory to their students.”
If this grant can be expanded to other regions, it would be a boon for science teachers all across the country. It would also force those teachers who are sympathetic to or teach creationism to put their hands on the table before another parent files a lawsuit.

John Freshwater Update

Chris McGreal of the Guardian has a story on the happenings at Mt. Vernon, Ohio, where the hearings on the case of John Freshwater are ongoing. Most of the article is a summary of the happenings in the classroom that led to the dismissal of Freshwater in 2008 but there is new information emerging from the hearings. For example:
Dick Hoppe – a former nuclear missile engineer who later helped design the Apollo spacecraft command module, and who was more recently a visiting professor of biology at a local college – has attended almost every day of the hearings.

"One student, when asked what he had learned about science from Mr Freshwater, testified that what he learned was you can't trust science. That surprised me. I didn't want to believe it was that overt," said the avowed atheist.

"Freshwater was teaching what the text taught – age of the Earth, fossils – and then would add an overlay of creationist material that cast doubt on what the text said. He would use a handout that described all the adaptations of a woodpecker and at the bottom he added: was intelligent design involved? He was teaching against the curriculum.
This tracks with other accounts of the kind of instruction that Freshwater gave. As is not so uncommon in these sorts of hearings where evolution and age of the earth issues are present, it is being spun as a battle against Christianity:
The teacher is a member of the Trinity Worship Centre, part of the country's largest Pentecostal denomination, where the pastor, Don Matolyak, is in effect Freshwater's spokesman.

"We heard many times: if he'd had a Qur'an on his desk he would never have had a problem. They're probably right because that would be seen as diversity," said Matolyak, who has stood in as a teacher for Freshwater's class.

"This is about a person's religious liberty. I see this as a battle that's going on in America, and there are those who want to totally secularise America and almost explain away our Christian heritage."
That the teaching of science can be structured as a cultural battle, once again, exemplifies how confused the culture is about science and its role in society. It is also instructive of how remarkably ignorant about basic science someone like Matolyak is. Typically, when the scientific argument isn't going well, it is reframed as a religious one. It is likely that the Bible on the desk of John Freshwater would have gone unremarked had it not been that he was teaching creationism and burning strange patterns in people's arms.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

"The Age of the Chinasaurs!"

Eric Adler of McClatchy news has a story on the rise in importance of China in the world of palaeontology and the enormous amount of information that is coming out of the country. He writes:
"It's not just dinosaurs, but fossil mammals, too," said famed dinosaur hunter Bob Bakker, curator of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. "They have great stuff: complete saber-tooth cat skeletons, three-toed horses. The Chinese have magnificent fossil rhinos."

As far as dinosaurs go, University of Pennsylvania paleontologist Peter Dodson keeps a running tally of the number discovered in different countries.

"I knew China had been close to the United States," he said. "I discovered to my surprise, chagrin, amazement that as of last summer, China not only had already surpassed the United States, but shot past it. I honestly didn't think we would ever relinquish our position, but things have happened so fast in China."

As of 1990, for example, a total of 64 types of dinosaurs had been found in the U.S; 44 in Mongolia; 36 in China.

In 2006, the U.S. hit 108, China was second at 101, Mongolia had 61.

Today, 132 have been found in China, 108 in the U.S. and 65 in Mongolia.

"I had a Chinese graduate student," Dodson said of his former student, You Hai-Lu. "In 2003, he accomplished a feat that nobody in the history of dinosaur paleontology had done. He named five new dinosaurs in one year."
It is largely the finds out of China that have revolutionized the study of the theropod-bird transition. As Donald Prothero writes in Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters:
The most earth-shaking discoveries come from the famous Lower Cretaceous Lianoning fossil beds of China, which have now become one of the world's most important fossil deposites. These delicate lake shales preserve extraordinary features in fossils, including body outlines, feathers, and fur as well as complete articulated skeletons with not a single bone missing.1

As Prothero notes, these beds have revealed many feathered, non-avian dinosaurs. Exciting times.

1Prothero, D. R. (2007) Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 263

Now playing: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers - Along Came Betty
via FoxyTunes

Dinosaur Footprints in East China City

Zhucheng City has been found to be the home of a series of Dinosaur footprints that represent more than six different dinosaurs. The story in Xinhaunet reports:
The footprints in at least three layers are rare in the world in terms of both their number and total size, they said.

The footprints, which range from 10 cm to 80 cm in length, revealed more than six kinds of dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus, Coelurosaurs and Hadrosaurs.

The footprints were in the same direction. Wang said this might be a result of migration or panic escape by plant-eating dinosaurs when facing a surprise raid from meat-eating counterparts.
Now, how again do you get fossil footprint in a world-wide flood? In different layers?

Now playing: Pat Metheny Group - Are You Going With Me?
via FoxyTunes

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Anti-Vaccine Movement and Creationism

Josh Rosenau has a very good post on the similarities in thought of those who have been pitching the anti-vaccine message and young earth creationists. He writes:
Like creationism, global warming denial, stem cell opposition, and anti-GMO sentiments, this is a cultural and political battle being confusingly fought on scientific turf. As such, the debunking of this and any other supposed scientific basis for opposing vaccines does not ultimately dissuade anti-vaccine activists from their work. And public health suffers as a result.

This is similar to the situation in the creationism wars. We spend a lot of time on blogs and in books and in the occasional debate arguing about fossils and genes and homologies, but none of that will ever convince someone wholeheartedly committed to creationism. No one becomes that sort of creationist on the basis of the science. They become a creationist of that sort because of how they see religion, and how they think that relates to science.
The effect of the retraction of the Lancet paper on the MMR vaccine that fueled the controversy had a predictable effect on those vocal in the crusade, Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy, who are now arguing that the retraction is an act of censorship.

Reading the post and some of the comments to the post, I am struck that there are two kinds of approaches to the scientific data that people can take when they address that data: those that have a preconceived notion of what the data can and cannot say and those that are willing to go where the data leads them. He recounts the tale of Glenn Morton who was forced to abandon his YEC beliefs because the science led him away from that sort of interpretation. Contrast that with the ICR's Radio Isotopes and the Age of the Earth project, in which the "correct" interpretation of the data (that the earth is less than 10,000 years old) was never in question, it was just a matter of demonstrating it. As both Kevin Henke and Randy Isaac have noted, this is reprehensible from a scientific viewpoint. If one is not willing to go where the science leads, don't get into the science. As Lt. Uhura noted in Star Trek III: "Be careful what you ask for. You might get it."

Now playing: The Alan Parsons Project - To One In Paradise
via FoxyTunes

Friday, February 05, 2010

Science and Religion: Not Historically Antagonists

Matthew Reisz of the Times Higher Education Supplement has an article on an upcoming lecture by Professor Peter Harrison at Cambridge on science and religion. Mr. Reisz reminds us of how ugly the struggle can get:
When Michael Reiss, an ordained Anglican priest, was forced to resign as director of education at the Royal Society in 2008, Sir Harry Kroto said that all religious people "fall at the first hurdle of the main requirement for honest scientific discussion because they accept unfounded dogma as having fundamental significance".

The Nobel laureate added that Professor Reiss, who came under pressure to quit after suggesting that creationism should be discussed in schools, "cannot have his religious cake in church and eat the scientific one in the classroom".
This is a remarkably myopic viewpoint, given that Dr. Reiss only meant to discuss creationism in class so it could be shown to have no scientific merit. Nobody seemed to care about that. One gets the impression the science and religion have always been antagonists. Not so, says Mr. Reisz:
Far from being militant atheists, they "believed that the disinterested study of the structures of living things could offer independent support for the truth of the Christian religion, and refute atheism".

But such efforts could be effective only if they were "based on premises that the atheist would accept ... individuals might be motivated by religious considerations to ensure the religious neutrality of their scientific endeavours".
This is something lost on both the new atheists and the YEC crowd—that science is what it is and cannot comment on the existence of God. Read the whole thing.

Now playing: The Alan Parsons Project - The Fall Of The House Of Usher - IV Pavane
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Genetics of Charles Darwin

National Geographic has a story on the ancestry of Charles Darwin. They write:
Darwin's great-great-grandson, Chris Darwin, 48, who lives in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, took a Genographic Project public participation cheek swab test analysing his "Y" chromosome.

According to Spencer Wells, project director of the Genographic Project, a research partnership between National Geographic and IBM with field support from the Waitt Family Foundation, Darwin's deep ancestry shows his ancestors left Africa around 45,000 years ago.
Eventually, the Genographic project should be able to show us the migratory trajectories of many of the genes in humans. That will help with both historic and prehistoric studies.

An interesting afterthought: There have been several of these genetic studies that have been used to trace ancestry back through time, the Cann, Stoneking and Wilson study on Mitochondrial Eve being only one. Not one of them has pointed to an origin of the modern human genome in the Middle East. Where ever modern humans originated, it was not from the Mesopotamian basin. This has always been, to me, an unanswerable question regarding the YEC model of Noah's flood: if it was universal, why doesn't the genetic information point to it? Further, why do cultures around the area not have records of it? Why don't nations across the world have a story about people that came out of the ark and moved into the area? Why are all the flood stories around the world different, with their own survivors? There seems to be this great amnesia with regard to the event, almost as if it never happened in their areas.

Now playing: Utopia - Overture: Mountaintop And Sunrise/Communion With The Sun
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Problem of Theodicy

Steve Martin has another in his series of posts on John Polkinghorne quotes, but he begins the post with some musings on theodicy and the earthquake in Haiti:
The first song we sang that morning was Indescribable. Now, this isn’t my favourite worship song and I usually simply stop singing when the second verse starts with “Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go …”. I’m always surprised that more people don’t find this line a little uncomfortable (Anyone here been hit by lightening? Anyone have someone they love killed by lightening?), but given current events, I was sure others must also see the problem.

Apparently not. The song continued without even a hint of irony. Ok, how about we change that line to “Who has told every tectonic plate when is should slide …”. Does that help illustrate the problem? Maybe we need to be a little blunter: “Did God kill all those people in Port-au-Prince?”
I sometimes wonder if my own view of God's interaction with Nature isn't a bit facile. I remember when a hurricane came up the east coast and people remarked that they were praying that the hurricane would not hit their town. Hurricanes form for a reason and are necessary for the proper functioning of the planet. Is that kind of prayer invoking God as cosmic valet? Does God really micromanage on that level? Read the whole thing.

Now playing: Mike Rutherford - After Hours
via FoxyTunes

Extending the Reach of Neandertals

The Independent is reporting that Neandertal remains have been found in Poland for the first time:
Scientists at the University of Szczecin in northern Poland have found the remains of the first Neanderthal discovered on Polish soil, local media reported Monday. The remains of tooth fragments were found in what appeared to be a grave, the daily Rzeczpospolita reported, which could mean Neanderthals were more advanced than originally thought.
That is an odd statement since there has been evidence of Neandertal Burials since the unearthing of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in the late 1800s. Since then, a number of Neandertal burials have been found (St. Cesaire, Kebara, Roc du Marcal, Amud and Shanidar to name a few). What is interesting is how far into the east Neandertals traveled. This is considerably north of Teshik Tash, the other notable find in this region.

Now playing: Anthony Phillips - The Burnt-Out Cattle Truck Hits The Road (1990)
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ken Ham's State of the Nation Address

Ken Ham, the head of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky will be giving a State of the Nation address on February 16, to be streamed at Christian NewWire has this quote from Ham:
"Many Christians have been duped into accepting a false idea: that there is a 'neutral' position they can take in regard to social issues," Ham said. "Some Christians even accept the myth that the U.S. Constitution declares that there should be a separation of church and state. They are hesitant to inject Christian beliefs into politics.

"God's Word, however, makes it clear that there is no neutral position," Ham continued. "God's people need to unashamedly and uncompromisingly stand on the Bible and its absolute standards. We need to proclaim a Christian worldview and the Gospel, all the while giving answers for the hope we have."
As a Christian, I support the above statements. I will have to tune in to see if he sticks to the text.

Now playing: Anthony Phillips & Joji Hirota - Fiesta Del Charangos
via FoxyTunes

Did Darwin Get it Wrong?

There have been many different postings in the last year attacking the core of "Darwinism." Most of them have been somewhat peculiar in that they have criticized the science that Darwin practiced, as though there has been no advancement in the discipline of evolutionary theory in the last 150 years. Hence the pejorative: "Darwinism." A new book is out called Did Darwin Get It Wrong, a title that is sure to raise the hackles of evoluionary biologists everywhere and get the ID folks dancing in the streets. But is that what the book is about? As the Independent writes:
So why would Jerry Fodor (philosopher) and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (cognitive scientist) be so concerned to refute aspects of Darwin's theory? Their book makes it very clear that an academic turf war lies behind it all. The stimulus was the outrage Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini felt for what they see as the misuse of Darwinism in the social sciences. Evolutionary psychology, in particular, gets their goat.

Evolutionary psychologists claim that the human mind was essentially formed by our life as hunter-gatherers in the Pleistocene ice age: we were adapted to that so aren't very well adapted to life in the shopping mall. These stories are fascinating, maybe true in some cases, but are untestable. The book includes a 15-page dossier of quotes from the culprits, the star turn being Steven Pinker.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini think that the best way to clear these pesky theorists from the campuses is to attack the idea of adaptive evolution at its root. Their title suggests that it is Darwin himself they are gunning for but, in fact, their target is an updated Darwinism enshrined around 50 years ago as the Modern Synthesis or Neo-Darwinism.
While it is certainly true that we have learned as much since the new synthesis was erected in the 1930s and 1940s as they had since the time of Darwin, the basic core ideas of mutation, selection, drift and flow still drive the vast majority of evolution. This, as well as much of the theory itself is, apparently, lost on the authors:
Fodor is a philosophical flâneur: he loves cheap jokes and affects a kind of provocative insouciance. His 2003 book on Hume states at the outset that he "could even write a book on Hume without actually knowing anything about him," and then claims to have done so. Philosophers and scientists could not be further apart. For geneticist and science writer Professor Steve Jones, "philosophy is to science what pornography is to sex."
The notions of evolutionary development and horizontal gene transferral, as well as new discoveries such as retrotransposons are certainly some areas that the evolutionary giants of the 30s and 40s did not know anything about and it has been fascinating to see how those have been worked into the modern theory (not avoided or swept under the rug, as some would contend). Read the whole thing.

Now playing: Steve Hackett - The Vigil
via FoxyTunes

Monday, February 01, 2010

No, It Is Probably Not a "Chunky Gravettian Kid."

Research on the teeth of the Lagar Velho specimen has revealed evidence suggesting that Zilhao and Trinkaus were right in their initial assessment of the evolutionary placement of the specimen. Science Daily reports:
Employing a technique called micro-tomography which uses x-rays to create cross-sections of 3D-objects, the researchers investigated the relative stages of formation of the developing teeth and the proportions of crown enamel, dentin and pulp in the teeth.

They found that, for a given stage of development of the cheek teeth, the front teeth were relatively delayed in their degree of formation. Moreover, the front teeth had a greater volume of dentin and pulp but proportionally less enamel than the teeth of recent humans.

The teeth of the Lagar Velho child thus fit the pattern evident in the preceding Neanderthals, and contrast with the teeth of later Pleistocene (12,000-year-old) humans and living modern humans.
Expect another dust-up.

Now playing: Steve Hackett - That Vast Life
via FoxyTunes

More on the Microraptor Specimen

Reuters has a story on the discovery of the microraptor with four wings (see the post below this one):
"This finding suggests that birds are likely to be descended from a kind of small-sized four-winged dinosaur about 160 million years ago," Xu said.

"It is a link between more typical theropods (dinosaurs which moved around with two rear limbs) and birds. It lived around a time period ... that we expected for birds' ancestor."

In a statement, the researchers said: "Long feathers cover the arms and tail, but also the feet, suggesting that a four-winged stage may have existed in the transition to birds."

The transition from dinosaurs to birds is still poorly understood because of the lack of well-preserved fossils, and many scientists say bird-like dinosaurs appear too late in the fossil record to be the true ancestors of birds.
It seems to be clear that a whole series of theropods were moving in the direction of flight. Which one got there first is still not known. We likely do not have enough information of the collateral ancestry of birds.

Now playing: Tony Banks - I Wanna Change The Score
via FoxyTunes

More Dinosaurs From China

Eric Adler of the Kansas City Star writes a story on the new "Chinasaurs" being unearthed in the Far East. As this stuff comes out of the ground, it gets harder and harder to ignore:
“Whether you are looking for marine reptiles or birds or dinosaurs, or whatever, China is developing so fast right now it is staggering.” said Philip Currie, professor of dinosaur paleobiology at the University of Alberta and vice president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. “I’d say that right now it is number one in the world for most major fossil finds.” The first KU discovery, announced in December, looks at fossilized teeth of a nasty turkey-sized dinosaur to show that some meat-eating dinosaurs not only clawed or chomped their victims, but also oozed venom from glands in their mouths like cobras or Komodo dragons to poison their prey. Read more: Discoveries by KU paleontologists trumpet the age of the Chinasaurs -
Here is the image from the story of a microraptor that has four wings and a dinosaur body.

About this animal, they write:
Paleontologists David Burnham and Larry Martin and animal flight expert David Alexander — all with KU — worked with Chinese scientists to create a model using bones cast from a 125-million-year-old, four-winged gliding dinosaur named microraptor to show that the pheasant-sized critter probably did not run on the ground, as many scientists contend.
The puzzle pieces keep being found. Read the whole thing.

Now playing: Tony Banks - A Curious Feeling
via FoxyTunes