Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Louisiana Still Trying To Get LSEA Repealed

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans is carrying a story about the latest attacks on the Louisiana Science Education Act.  Danielle Dreilinger writes:
The Botanical Society of America devoted a symposium Monday in New Orleans to railing against and ridiculing the Louisiana Science Education Act. Panelists said the 2008 law allows the teaching of creationism in science class and has made the state an international laughingstock.
Supporters of the law claim that it doesn't allow the teaching of religion but fail to explain why the entire text of the law is aimed squarely at biology and evolution, as if other scientific disciplines are exempt. To the writers of the law, only the areas of evolution and climate change are "controversial." This speaks as much to their comparative lack of education as anything. As Zack Kopplin has stated: "You don't need a law to teach critical thinking in science." Or you shouldn't anyway.

Monday, July 29, 2013

New Poll Results on The Huffington Post

HuffPo has an odd post on a new survey that tracks the belief in evolution and how it has changed since the last such poll.  Yasmine Hafiz writes:
According to a YouGov poll, only 21% of Americans believe that human beings evolved without the involvement of God, and 25% of those surveyed said, "Human beings evolved but God guided this process."

37% of respondents answered that "God created human beings in their present form," in response to the question "Which of the following comes closest to your views on the origin of human beings?"

The research shows a slow change in the national acceptance of evolution, as in 2004 only 13% of Americans said that human beings evolved without God's guidance.

However, the country remains divided on the issue of what to teach in schools, as 40% favor teaching creationism and intelligent design in schools while 32% oppose it and 29% are unsure.
The poll results, themselves, are here.  Ms. Hafiz writes that there is change in the national acceptance of evolution.  That statement is without evidence.  What the poll does reflect is an 8% swing away from a theistic evolution/evolutionary creation explanation of human origins, which may reflect a deeper move of those people away from the church.    Acceptance of evolution may or may not have increased in the last nine years but that is not what is being identified.

Further, despite her consternation regarding the teaching of ID in schools, it is not difficult to see that, if 37% of those polled think that people were created in their present form (that question is a bit fuzzy in and of itself), that 40% would support the teaching of ID and creationism since creation by divine fiat precludes an evolutionary explanation. 

Interesting poll results.  Fuzzy interpretation. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ball State Closes Review Report

Ball State University has decided not to make public the report concerning Eric Hedin.  The Muncie Star Press reports:
Provost Terry King created the panel to advise him after BSU received a threatening letter from an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which alleges the honors science course is “a one-sided monologue by a government-paid employee whose agenda is to show that science proves the truth of religion.”

Ball State earlier also declined to release student evaluations of the course.

FFRF and The Discovery Institute, an intelligent design think tank that is supporting physicist Hedin, are criticizing Ball State’s decision to keep the records secret.
Ball State University has invoked the defense that these reports are part of the life of the university and should not be public:
BSU spokeswoman Joan Todd said: “We define student evaluations and other teaching evaluations, such as the review panel's report, as part of a personnel file. It is not our practice to release such materials. We have a consistent history of protecting the privacy of personnel records and do not believe that Dr. Hedin should be treated differently.
Eventually, however, the results of the report will be felt. Although you can't see a black hole, you can tell it is there based on what happens around it. Hedin's class will either continue or be cancelled and the report will have a role to play in his tenure application, when it happens. It may also be leaked at some point. Until then, Ball State University has gone silent on the matter.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Homo floresiensis Gains Legitimacy

Science Daily has posted a story detailing new examination of the Liang Bua crania by researchers at SUNY Stonybrook, The University of Tubingen, and the University of Minnesota in which they grant legitimate species status to Homo floresiensis.  They write:
The scientists applied the powerful methods of 3-D geometric morphometrics to compare the shape of the LB1 cranium (the skull minus the lower jaw) to many fossil humans, as well as a large sample of modern human crania suffering from microcephaly and other pathological conditions. Geometric morphometrics methods use 3D coordinates of cranial surface anatomical landmarks, computer imaging, and statistics to achieve a detailed analysis of shape.

This was the most comprehensive study to date to simultaneously evaluate the two competing hypotheses about the status of
Homo floresiensis.

The study found that the LB1 cranium shows greater affinities to the fossil human sample than it does to pathological modern humans. Although some superficial similarities were found between fossil, LB1, and pathological modern human crania, additional features linked LB1exclusively with fossil Homo. The team could therefore refute the hypothesis of pathology.
The link to the PLoS paper is here.This is the conclusion of the paper:
Our analyses corroborate the previously suggested link between LB1 and fossil Homo and support the attribution of this specimen to a distinct taxon, H. floresiensis. Furthermore, the neurocranial shape of H. floresiensis closely resembles that of H. erectus s.l. and particularly specimens of early Eurasian H. erectus, although it is unclear whether this latter affinity is best attributed to a close phylogenetic relationship or to a size-related convergence in shape. These results also counter the hypotheses of pathological conditions as the underlying cause of the LB1 neurocranial phenotype, with the possible exception of posterior deformational plagiocephaly, a condition without significant adverse health effects.
Of course, this doesn't mean that it is not endemic dwarfism, just that it is not built on a modern human base. In this case, it may represent a Homo erectus base. Why it was so marked is still an unanswered question.It is also quite possible that this represents founder effect followed by years of selection for diminutive characteristics.  It definitely represents a peculiar side branch in human evolutionary history but not one that defies explanation. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Gonzalez Won't Teach ID

Guillermo Gonzalez has made a public attestation that he will not teach intelligent design at Ball State University.  As the Muncie Star Press reports:
Gonzalez, who was hired by BSU this summer as an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy, is best known for his advocacy of intelligent design.

“As I communicated to members of the department during my interviews, I plan to continue my research on astrobiology and stellar astrophysics,” Gonzalez said in a statement issued this week.

The statement reported that he will not be discussing intelligent design in the classroom, and that he did not discuss intelligent design when he taught at Iowa State University, either
That may not be enough to soothe folks like Coyne and Harris but it is a huge step forward to placate the faculty at Ball State, I am sure. It is important for him to distance himself from the modern ID movement in this sense and for them to understand that. The anti-science comments made by the faculty at Iowa State are not without merit.

It is one thing for ID supporters to believe that the universe is created and guided by an intelligence. It is another for modern ID supporters to, having no theoretical constructs of their own, take pot shots at organized science in support of their ideas.  At least "mainstream" creationism, warts and all, has a testable framework. You can test the hypothesis "the earth was created six-thousand years ago." That's easy. Trying to test the hypothesis "God created the heavens and the earth," That's hard.  Add to that the fact that the public face of ID as purveyed by people like David Klinghoffer, Cornelius Hunter, William Dembski and David Berlinski is rabidly "anti-Darwinian," and you have a science credibility problem.  Gonzalez is wise to stay well away from that. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Science Magazine: Turkish Scientists See Growing Antievolution Bias in Government

In an alarming and growing trend in Turkey, the main Turkish granting agency, The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey has denied a grant to a summer workshop on evolutionary biology. Science Magazine writes:
Now, the organizers are calling this the first open admission of a bias against evolutionary biology by Turkey's conservative government. The government began blocking educational evolution websites in 2011, and recently TÜBİTAK stopped publishing books on evolution, a decision it claimed was based on copyright issues.
The longer article is here.  In it, the ruling organization is quoted as saying the denial was based on objective peer-review.  The decision to stop publishing books on evolutionary biology because of copyright issues is a smokescreen. The government has been leaning toward creationism for some time and, when he was not in prison, Turkey's chief creationist, Adnan Oktar (neé Harun Yahya) enjoyed remarkable popularity. Four years ago, the Washington Post alerted the western world to this problem. At the time, Marc Kaufman wrote:
The Islamic anti-evolution campaign is taking place in Turkey, and not Egypt or Saudi Arabia, because it is the Muslim nation where evolution has been taken most seriously. Like the Bible, the Koran says that God created the Earth and everything on it, and in many Muslim nations that ends the discussion. But Turkey, which is officially secular, appears to be joining its Muslim neighbors on evolution. A recent survey, quoted in a 2008 article in the American journal Science, found that fewer than 25 percent of Turks accepted evolution as an explanation of how modern life came to be -- by far the lowest percentage of any developed nation. In a year in which conferences worldwide are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and his contribution to science, the battle against Darwinian thinking in Turkey has become something of a rout, even among aspiring science teachers.
It appears that the problem is increasing. In a sense, Turkey has it worse than the United States because the problem in the U.S. is largely the work of private organizations (AiG, ICR and the like) and in the local school boards and state legislatures. Where there are legal challenges, they are all one-sided. Creationists and ID supporters typically get their clocks cleaned. In Turkey, however, the ruling, central, Islamic government is supporting creationism. Anyone not supporting the government can get marginalized (or worse) simply on ideological grounds.

Hat tip to the Panda's Thumb

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Inside Higher Ed on Guillermo Gonzalez

Inside Higher Ed has a short blurb on the hiring of Guillermo Gonzalez at Ball State University.  It reads in part:
Gonzalez was denied tenure at Iowa State University, where he said that he was being punished for his views, but his faculty colleagues said he was rejected based on traditional tenure criteria. A broad consensus exists among scientists that evolution, not intelligent design, explains the origins of the earth. And many scientists -- while having no problem with intelligent design as a focus in philosophy or religion classes -- object to science departments teaching it.
What is considerably more interesting is the comments section, which contains an invocation of Godwin's Law and some reactions to the blurb. For example, one (correctly) writes:
I'm pretty sure that this sentence cannot be true: "A broad consensus exists among scientists that evolution, not intelligent design, explains the origins of the earth."

Unless, that is, the word "origin" no longer means what it used to mean.
Another individual responded “The hiring of such people should automatically decertify the institution.” This was not very well received and reminded me of what defrocked comedian Mike Warnke once upon a time said: “He was so narrow-minded he could look through a key-hole with both eyes.”

It is quite interesting to see the range of variation in comments to this story, both here and elsewhere.  It seems to have struck quite a nerve. 

Study: Neandertal Speech and Language Abilities Like Modern Humans

Science Daily has a story on Neandertal speech.  Work by Dan Didiu and Stephen Levinson suggests that Neandertals and modern humans share a common ancestry with regard to the use of language.  Science Daily writes:
Dediu and Levinson review all these strands of literature and argue that essentially modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back at least to the most recent ancestor we shared with the Neandertals and the Denisovans (another form of humanity known mostly from their genome). Their interpretation of the intrinsically ambiguous and scant evidence goes against the scenario usually assumed by most language scientists, namely that of a sudden and recent emergence of modernity, presumably due to a single -- or very few -- genetic mutations. This pushes back the origins of modern language by a factor of 10 from the often-cited 50 or so thousand years, to around a million years ago -- somewhere between the origins of our genus, Homo, some 1.8 million years ago, and the emergence of Homo heidelbergensis. This reassessment of the evidence goes against a saltationist scenario where a single catastrophic mutation in a single individual would suddenly give rise to language, and suggests that a gradual accumulation of biological and cultural innovations is much more plausible..
I am still a bit “iffy” on the whole “common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals” thing since some are trying to argue for a common ancestor based on the material from the Gran Dolina, in Spain, and it sure as all get out looks like modern humans originated in Northeast Africa at, or near, Herto. I have a tendency to think that there was a good deal of panmixia throughout Europe and north Africa.  Otherwise, we are required to believe that there was a species split at H. antecessor into what became modern humans (how'd they get to north Africa?) on one side and Neandertals on the other and that, some 700 to 720 thousand years later, emerging moderns and Neandertals encountered one another and interbred.  That is overly simplistic, I am sure but it seems far-fetched.  It seems easier to argue that the H. antecessor material represents an archaic Homo sapiens population that was the precursor (or something like it was) to later archaics, such as Petralona and Atapuerca, out of which Neandertals came.  Then the Neandertals interbred with the north-moving moderns and somewhere in there, the Denisova population split off.  The panmixia in Europe, western Asia and Russia explains why moderns have both Neandertal and Denisovan genes, along with the modern genes that originated in North Africa.  Subsequent swamping of the archaic genome led to the demise of both the Neandertals and Denisovans.   

Monday, July 08, 2013

Uncommon Advertising?

I yanked this screenshot off of Uncommon Descent, the ID blog that is run by Barry Arrington and to which Denys O'Leary, Cornelius Hunter and William Dembski post occasionally.  The blog is, ostensibly Christian in outlook and presentation.  This is why I don't run advertising on my blog.

Kind of a mixed message here, folks.

Throwing Caution To The Winds...

Ball State University, in the middle of a controversy surrounding one of its faculty, Eric Hedin, has just hired Guillermo Gonzalez, the astronomer who made waves a few years ago when he was denied tenure at Iowa State University.  He maintained that the reason for this was because he is a supporter of Intelligent Design.  He appealed the decision and lost the appeal.  It is hard to argue with his publication record up to the point—he had 66 publications in a little over twenty years (2007 data) and they were all in mainstream journals. Arguments were made at the time that he had not published acceptable science in some years leading up to the denial of tenure. A look at the actual published papers in his vita would seem to suggest otherwise. Furthermore, Iowa State faculty admitted later that his support of ID was a factor in the denial. Charles Huckabee, of the Chronicle of Higher Education writes:
The astronomer, Guillermo Gonzalez, made headlines when Iowa State University denied him tenure in 2007, a decision that was upheld by the university’s president and the statewide Iowa Board of Regents. He maintained that he had been denied tenure because of his advocacy of intelligent design. The university said the decision was based on scholarly concerns, such as a publication record that dwindled after a promising start. After leaving Iowa State, Mr. Gonzalez landed on the faculty at Grove City College, a Christian institution in Pennsylvania.
What effect this will have on the Hedin case is unclear but it will certainly make Ball State a lightening rod for more criticism from folks like Jerry Coyne.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Discovery Institute Claims Bias in Eric Hedin Case

The Muncie Star Press is reporting on a complain filed by the Discovery Institute that the panel set to review the class of Eric Hedin is biased away from ID.  Seth Slabaugh writes:
A national organization supporting assistant professor of physics Eric Hedin is charging that a faculty panel appointed to review Hedin’s “Boundaries of Science” course at Ball State University is far from impartial. Three of the four panelists are connected to groups opposed to intelligent design, says John West, vice president of the Seattle-based, intelligent-design think tank The Discovery Institute.
The people that are on the panel are experts in the field of astronomy, biology and philosophy. The complaint does not seem to address that. The problem is that, as scientists, they don't like ID. There is a distinct problem here. It is not likely that anyone qualified to sit on that panel will like ID. Whatever the Discovery Institute thinks, your average scientist does not think that ID is science. It has no testable framework or general theory and consists largely of taking pot shots at evolution. I doubt the DI could find anyone that would be acceptable on that panel except their own fellows, at which point the rank and file scientists would come out of the woodwork and cry foul—justifiably. Therefore, they can complain about the setup but they have  nothing to put in its place. 

Friday, July 05, 2013

A Review of Darwin's Doubt By Nick Matzke

Over at Panda's Thumb, Nick Matzke has written a review of Stephen Meyer's new book Darwin's Doubt.  To get an idea of what he thinks of the book, Matzke's post is called "Meyer's Hopeless Monster." For example:
As I read through Meyer’s book, though, in case after case I see misunderstandings, superficial treatment of key issues which are devastating to his thesis once understood, and complete or near-complete omission of information that any non-expert reader would need to have to make an accurate assessment of Meyer’s arguments.
He also chastises Meyer for his lack of understanding of unilineal versus collateral ancestry, and notes that this is a common problem with creationists:
Yet another confusion that Meyer exhibits relates to the idea of “ancestor”. As with all creationists, Meyer exhibits no understanding of the fact that phylogenetic methods as they exist now can only rigorously detect sister-group relationships, not direct ancestry, and, crucially, that this is neither a significant flaw, nor any sort of challenge to common ancestry, nor any sort of evidence against evolution. Distinguishing between a close sister-group relationship and an exact ancestor is just a level of precision that we cannot expect in most cases. It’s just a by-product of the method and the data available.
A common problem is the inability to understand that even if a species did not give rise to successor species, it can still be transitional by virtue of the number of derived and retained traits relative to its sister taxa.

The whole review is scathing and his examples devastating to the premises of the book.  Another ID hatchet job.  

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Reuters: More than 7,000 Petition Ball State University to Protect Academic Freedom of Professor Eric Hedin

Reuters is carrying a press release about the effort spearheaded by the Discovery Institute to take the heat off of Eric Hedin, who has become somewhat of a posterboy for academic freedom.  From the PR Newswire by way of the DI:
Discovery Institute has delivered a petition to Ball State University (BSU) from more than 7,000 people, including more than 1,200 residents of Indiana, urging the university to defend the academic freedom of assistant professor of physics Eric Hedin. Prof. Hedin has come under attack from activists at the Freedom from Religion Foundation because of an honors seminar he teaches on the "Boundaries of Science" that discusses the debate over intelligent design as one of its topics.

The petition was accompanied by letters to BSU President Jo Ann Gora and the university's Board of Trustees from Discovery Institute Vice President Dr. John West.
To be sure, the petition would carry more weight had it been from an organization that is seen by the scientific community as legitimate, which the DI is not.  Consequently, it may be received in much the same way as the "Dissent from Darwin" list is.  We shall see.