Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The John Freshwater Case Continues...

ABC News is carrying a story on the case of John Freshwater, the science teacher who was let go after complaints by students and parents that he was teaching creationism and branding arms with crosses.  His case has gone to the Ohio Supreme Court.  Julie Carr Smyth and Andrew Welsh-Huggins of the AP write:
In his dismissal case, Freshwater is getting legal backing from the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group. Science education and humanist and secular groups have joined the side of the school board.

The school board argues that as far back as 1994, a middle school principal told Freshwater to stop distributing an "Answers in Genesis" pamphlet, which contained information about a creationist organization's seminar, according to a filing by board attorneys asking the court to uphold Freshwater's firing.

Freshwater also used a handout titled "Survival of the Fakest" to teach his students to doubt science, the board's attorneys said.

Two lower courts previously upheld Freshwater's dismissal.
I am sort of surprised that the court offered to hear this case because Freshwater had been so thoroughly trounced by the lower courts and this does not represent compelling interest. I am curious to see how they rule.

Friday, February 22, 2013

23 And Me

For her birthday, the husband of one of my friends here at the library gave her a complete genetic profile from the company 23 And Me. Among the findings: she is 2.7 % Neandertal.  There's nothing like being able to trace your ancestry back 70 to 80 thousand years. 

She is going to check to see if there are any genes linking her to the Denisovan group.  They may or may not have included that information. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Karl Giberson: Praise For Pope Benedict

Karl Giberson has written a piece that appears in HufPo about the friendship between Pope Benedict and the scientific community.  He writes:
An underappreciated achievement of Pope Benedict has been his consistent support for science. At time when the gulf between science and Christianity is widening in the United States -- polls show support for young earth creationism is on the rise -- Benedict was a quiet and powerful voice calling for Christians to embrace science.

Just over a year ago Benedict even founded a new organization -- The Science and Faith Foundation -- at the Vatican to continue and enlarge the task of building bridges between science and theology, and to ease concerns of Christians that their faith demands the rejection of science. The executive director Father Tomasz Trafny describes the mission as the search for a "coherent vision of society, culture and the human being," arguably the most important quest we confront today.
However, it should be remembered that it was not always the case that Pope Benedict supported evolution (sorry, the regular link is no longer active) and that he went through a "conversion" of sorts.  This seems to have occurred somewhat quickly, although it is not possible to ascertain that for sure.  In August of 2006, he fired the royal astronomer for his support of evolution but by early September, 2006, USA Today reported that, in published minutes, the pontiff had changed his mind.
The minutes, to be issued later this year, will show how Catholic theologians see no contradiction between their belief in divine creation and the scientific theory of evolution, participants said after the annual closed-door meeting ended Sunday.
Now that he is abdicating, I wonder what the new pope will think about evolution.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

Barbara Cargill Backpedals

A bit back, I wrote an open letter to Barbara Cargill, who sits on the Texas State Board of Education, and asked her what she found objectionable in the theory of evolution.  She, of course, never wrote back but in the last week, we have the peculiar story that she is backpedaling on her comments.  Ben Kamisar of The Austin Statesman writes:
Watson’s questioning ultimately spurred a debate over teaching intelligent design in public schools, when he asked about Cargill’s comments last week at a Senate Education Committee hearing where she was quoted stating that there could be “another side to the theory of evolution.” She said the statement was taken out of context and clarified that she meant for teachers to teach all sides of scientific evidence, not matters of faith. “In biology class and in science class, I want to stick just to the science, like I did when I was teaching,” Cargill said. “The other needs to be taught at church or in the home.”
If you go to Cargill's web site now, there is no mention of creationism or intelligent design anywhere that I could find. If she still openly supports either, she is hiding it very well on her site. She may not think any differently, but given what happened to McLeroy, she may want to keep it completely off the radar. Wise move.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Barry Fagin: Darwin Day reminds us of intellectual integrity

Barry Fagin reminds us of why evolutionary theory is such a good one and why it has withstood the test of time. He writes:
Evolution is a fact, but it is also a theory, in its most beautiful, scientific sense: A unifying set of ideas that withstands challenges from alternative explanations, connecting with existing knowledge in a consistent and powerful way.

There are maybe half a dozen or so truly great Theories in the history of humanity. These bold ideas are not only supported by an unimaginably vast quantity of evidence, but are also stunningly beautiful. Isaac Newton gave us the Theory of Gravitation in
Principia Mathematica. Two centuries later, Albert Einstein made it even more beautiful with his Theory of General Relativity. In between the two, Darwin gave us Origin of Species.

Evolution predicted that genetic information should be transmitted through a discrete, copying process that should be almost exact but with some errors. Scientists later discovered DNA, the molecule that did exactly that. It has accurately predicted what certain fossils should look like and how old they would be when found. Today, it identifies the most fruitful paths for new drug development. Without the knowledge produced by the Theory of Evolution, advanced genetic medical therapies would not be possible.
He is quite correct. Even creationists such as Todd Wood recognize the power of this theory as an explanatory framework and the evidence behind it. It is evident, even from the comments, though, that there are many who hold on to outdated or wrong conceptions of the theory. That is a shame.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Basics of Evolution

Dennis Venema is launching a series of posts at BioLogos on the basics of evolutionary theory.  Given the quality of Dennis' work so far, this should be an extremely good resource.  I may even avail some of my Christian friends of it.  He writes:
The goal of this course is straightforward: to provide evangelical Christians with a step-by-step introduction to the science of evolutionary biology. This will provide benefits beyond just the joy of learning more about God’s wonderful creation. An understanding of the basic science of evolution is of great benefit for reflecting on its theological implications, since this reflection can then be done from a scientifically-informed perspective.
Looking forward to it. 

Friday, February 08, 2013

Montana "Strengths and Weaknesses" Bill Dies in Committee

The Great Falls Tribune is reporting that the ID-themed “strengths and weaknesses” bill promoted by Clayton Fiscus tothe Montana state legislature has died in committee.  Matt Gouras writes:
A lawmaker’s proposal protecting “alternative viewpoints” during the teaching of evolution and science in schools came under fire Friday from opponents who argued it would pave the way for teaching of creationism.

Rep. Clayton Fiscus, R-Billings, said evolution isn’t settled science and called it a “monumental leap” to believe it is true. His bill would allow teachers — if they want — to address perceived weaknesses in evolution studies in the classroom.
How anyone with a college education can say that evolution is “not settled science” is beyond me.  I guess 150 years of in-depth investigation and hypothesis testing is not enough.  This is best summed up in another paragraph from the story:
“There is no controversy within the scientific community with regard to evolution. None,” said Dr. Phil Jensen, a Rocky Mountain College professor. “Any controversy there is, is a social one fueled by people outside the scientific community.”
The problem, of course, is that these people outside the scientific community have an army of supporters and the money to fund their campaigns. At least, for now, the skirmish has been won in Montana and folks might be getting weary of this kind of legislation.  A reader who testified at the Montana hearings said that no supporters of the bill showed up to promote it. 

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Missouri's ID Bill or keping misooree stupit

Here is the text of the Missouri Standard Science Act,  which was linked from a Missouri blog called Show Me Progress, who posted it under the title “keping misooree stupit.” As ID bills go, it is quite a bit more blatant than most. None of this “academic freedom” or “truths and weaknesses” nonsense. It gets right to the point:
(2) "Biological evolution", a theory of the origin of life and its ascent by naturalistic means. The first simple life was developed from basic elements and simple molecules through the mechanisms of random combinations, naturally occurring molecular structures, other naturalistic means, and millions of years. From the first simple life, all subsequent species developed through the mechanisms of random variation, mutation, natural selection, adaptation, segregation, other naturalistic means, and millions of years. The theory is illustrated by the evolutionary phylogenic tree. Theory philosophically demands only naturalistic causes and denies the operation of any intelligence, supernatural event, God or theistic figure in the initial or subsequent development of life;
(3) "Biological intelligent design", a hypothesis that the complex form and function observed in biological structures are the result of intelligence and, by inference, that the origin of biological life and the diversity of all original species on earth are the result of intelligence. Since the inception of each original species, genetic material has been lost, inherited, exchanged, mutated, and recombined to result in limited variation. Naturalistic mechanisms do not provide a means for making life from simple molecules or making sufficient new genetic material to cause ascent from microscopic organisms to large life forms. The hypothesis does not address the time or sequence of life's appearance on earth, time or formation of the fossil record, and time or method of species extinction. The hypothesis does not require the identity of intelligence responsible for earth's biology but requires any proposed identity of that intelligence to be verifiable by present-day observation or experimentation. Concepts inherent within the hypothesis include:

(a) The origin of life on earth is inferred to be the result of intelligence directed design and construction. There are no plausible mechanisms or present-day experiments to prove the naturalistic origin of the first independent living organism;

(b) All original species on earth are inferred to be the result of intelligence directed design and construction. There are no significant mechanisms or present-day experiments to prove the naturalistic development of earth's species from microscopic organisms;
If you read between the lines, however, you can see the standard language in the whole ‘evolution cannot lead to increased information’ language. Credit the bill's organizers for reading their Dembski.  It is clear that the writers don't know the first thing about evolutionary theory but most of the organizers of bills like these aren't interested in learning about it in the first place.

The bill also reflects the usual bogus dichotomy between evolution and belief in God by defining evolution a priori as denying the role of God completely, as if, somehow, the backers know this. In one fell swoop, they also deny the validity of the evolutionary creation model, which makes one wonder if there are young earth creationist sympathies at work. 

It is difficult to see how this is going to fly in the legislature or if it does, how it would survive a constitutional challenge. It is almost as if the bill's promoters have never heard of Dover, Pennsylvania.  I would expect this to die in committee. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Update From Todd Wood

Todd Wood is now actively trying to save CORE and, even though he is still in the proposal and fundraising stages, it looks like his efforts may pay off.  He writes:
If you pray to the one true God, please pray for us now that these proposals will be well received and that God will guide us as we make even BIGGER plans for the future. If you don't pray to the one true God, well... keep watching, because I think He's going to do something amazing.
Because of his attention to the data and his honesty and integrity, his presence on the scene can only benefit the entire search for the truth in these issues and I pray that his efforts will succeed.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Letters of Alfred Russel Wallace Online

The collected letters of Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, have been put online by the Natural History Museum.  Wallace was the subject of a chapter in the David Quammen book The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. The chapter was called "The Man Who Knew Islands." Where Darwin used the Galapagos Islands and the terrain of South America to devise his theory, Wallace used the islands of Indonesia.  The site is billed as having:
  • iconic correspondence between Wallace and Charles Darwin about evolution by natural selection
  • important observations and discoveries made when in the Malay Archipelago (1854 - 1862)
  • fascinating discussions on a variety of subjects, scientific and social such as glaciology, anthropology, epidemiology, astrobiology, socialism, land reform and spiritualism
Wallace was a spiritualist and began to infuse his scientific writings with spiritualism, a development which dismayed Darwin, who had gone to great lengths to show that natural selection could be thought of in scientific terms, alone.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Open Letter to Arizona Senator Judy Burges

Recently, Judy Burges of the Arizona senate, along with some senatorial colleagues, put forth an “strengths and weaknesses” bill for passage by the legislature. The bill, SB 1213, reads in part:
The state board of education, the department of education, county school superintendents, school district governing boards, school district superintendents, school principals and school administrators shall not prohibit any teacher in this state from helping pupils understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.
This is classic language from the Discovery Institute. The idea is to contrive “weaknesses” in evolution and other related disciplines and then promote the idea of teaching alternatives to them. In all of the cases of which I am familiar, the “weaknesses” turn out to be incorrect interpretations of data, such as “No transitional fossils” or “natural selection cannot increase genetic information.” I have drafted a letter to Senator Burges. It reads:
Dear Senator Burges,
Although not a resident of the state of Arizona, I am concerned by the text of the bill being promoted in the legislature (SB 1213) that has, as its intent science instruction. For one thing, I assumed that it was axiomatic that one of the primary purposes of the public schools was to, in the words of the bill "help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive and scientifically informed citizens." Consequently, the promotion of this bill seems redundant and, unless you are concerned that this is not happening in the Arizona public schools, I am curious why such legislation is necessary.
Additionally, I am concerned that, of all of the scientific disciplines that would fall under this kind of legislation, only certain ones dealing with the life sciences are being singled out for special treatment. If the purpose of this bill is to produce scientifically literate students, then surely such a bill would strive to be comprehensive, including other disciplines for which there are theoretical constructs such as Newtonian and quantum physics. I am further concerned that such a bill will give cover to the teaching of scientifically unsound concepts such as young-earth creationism, as has happened in Texas.
As I indicated at the beginning of my letter, I am not a resident of Arizona but I also know that properly educated students coming out of Arizona affect the scientific enterprises of the country as a whole. Therefore, I ask that you either rethink the wording of your bill to include other scientific disciplines or withdraw the bill as being unnecessary. Thank you for your time.


James Kidder, Ph.D.
Knoxville, Tennessee
I never received a response to a letter I wrote Barbara Cargill of Texas. I doubt I will get one from Senator Burges. We shall see.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Ken Ham Alters His Testimony

It seems that Ken Ham recently had a Google+ Live chat and was asked by a caller about people riding dinosaurs in the Bible.  Here is the exchange:
Q: The last question we have here tonight Ken, they ask: “How did men get the dinosaurs to not buck them off of their saddles when people rode them? Were the dinosaurs more domesticated and well behaved because there wasn’t as much sin back them? I’ve always wondered.”

Ham: (pause) Well, I need to get paid overtime for this question… I seems we’re a bit over our time.

I don’t know where people get the idea that people rode dinosaurs. I mean, there’s no evidence in the Bible that that is so. When Job was looking at Behemoth, the description there… there’s nothing to do with people riding dinosaurs. We don’t know how people interacted with dinosaurs.
As Fatlip over at Leo Weekly amply demonstrates, this is in sharp contrast to what he has previously written. Out of the images that Fatlip provides, this one is the best. It is from Ham's book Dinosaurs of Eden: Tracing the Mystery Through History:

Those are, in fact, Noah's descendents riding dinosaurs.

So, faced with one of the most preposterous of his young earth creation claims, Ken Ham waffles.  It is doubtful that he simply forgot what he wrote, nor is it credible that he didn't see the proofs of the book before it was published and “missed” the pictures of people riding dinosaurs.

It is quite possible that he simply realized how ridiculous it sounded and couldn't bring himself to agree with it. Given his evasive and somewhat-less-than-truthful statements about AiG's involvement in the Ark Encounter, however, I remain skeptical.  

Just as astounding is the question, though.  This just shows up the fact that people who might otherwise be reasonable, believe absolutely fantastic things in the pursuit of this young earth hermeneutic.