Monday, September 30, 2013

Kansas (Again)

"Who could imagine that they would freak-out somewhere in Kansas."  -Frank Zappa

The next generation science standards have been adopted in Kansas and already there has been a lawsuit filed against the Kansas State Board of Education by a conservative group to block their implementation.  From the AP by way of Fox News:
The group, Citizens for Objective Public Education, had criticized the standards developed by Kansas, 25 other states and the National Research Council for treating both evolution and climate change as key scientific concepts to be taught from kindergarten through 12th grade. The Kansas State Board of Education adopted them in June to replace evolution-friendly standards that had been in place since 2007.

The new standards, like the ones they replaced, reflect the mainstream scientific view that evolution is well-established. Most board members believed the guidelines will improve science education by shifting the emphasis in science classes to doing hands-on projects and experiments.
The complaint focuses on the idea that if the children are taught evolutionary principles, that is tantamount to teaching them atheism.  Most of the direct quotes in the story reveal a general ignorance of science on the part of the lawsuit's promoters, notably John Calvert
Calvert was a key figure in past Kansas evolution debates as a founder of the Intelligent Design Network, contending that life is too complex to have developed through unguided evolution. Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director for the Oakland, Calif.-based National Center for Science Education, said Calvert has been making such an argument for years and "no one in the legal community has put much stock in it."
Like the folks involved in most of these lawsuits and complaints, I would be surprised if he would be capable of coming up with even a cursorily working definition of evolution.

BioLogos Post The Rise of the Neandertals, Part I is Up!

My newest BioLogos post, The Rise of the Neandertals, Part I is up, here.  Comments are welcome either here or there.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Science Daily: "Anthropologists Confirm Link Between Cranial Anatomy and Two-Legged Walking"

This sort of fits under the category of "gee, who knew" but it is nice to finally have confirmation of something that has been tacitly understood for almost ninety years.  Science Daily writes:
The study, published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, confirms a controversial finding made by anatomist Raymond Dart, who discovered the first known two-legged walking (bipedal) human ancestor, Australopithecus africanus. Since Dart's discovery in 1925, physical anthropologists have continued to debate whether this feature of the cranial base can serve as a direct link to bipedal fossil species.
Okay, first, the controversial nature of this is being massively overstated. There is very little doubt, based on comparative anatomical studies, that the placement of the foramen magnum is directly indicative of the kind of locomotor pattern that a given animal employs. That is what clued Dart in to the whole idea that the Taung child represented a biped in the first place. Its foramen magnum was not in the place that you would have expected it to be if the individual had been either a quadrupedal baboon or extinct ape (of which there were none in South Africa). It was, however, located in the same place as in bipedal humans. Further studies demonstrated that if you placed the Taung skull on a quadrupedal animal, it didn't work. The animal would have its face pointed down all of the time, instead of out, like your average quadruped. Put simply, the Taung child was an early biped and there was no reason to think anything differently.

Once again, comparative anatomical studies to the rescue!
As part of the study, the researchers measured the position of the foramen magnum in 71 species from three mammalian groups: marsupials, rodents and primates. By comparing foramen magnum position broadly across mammals, the researchers were able to rule out other potential explanations for a forward-shifted foramen magnum, such as differences in brain size.

According to the findings, a foramen magnum positioned toward the base of the skull is found not only in humans, but in other habitually bipedal mammals as well. Kangaroos, kangaroo rats and jerboas all have a more forward-shifted foramen magnum compared with their quadrupedal (four-legged walking) close relatives.
Well, now we know for sure...sort of.   

Monday, September 23, 2013

Josh Rosenau Updates Us on the "Ark-n-Park"

Josh Rosenau of the NCSE is writing to let us know how Ken Ham is continuing to prop up construction of the Ark Encounter (derisively called the "Ark-n-Park" by Barry Lynn).  He notes:
The project has already been promised a tourism-related state tax rebate and state road crews will widen the road leading to the park, but apparently the campaign to raise capital for construction has not been meeting expectations (neither has Creation Museum attendance, reportedly). So Ken Ham is looking for a new way to scare up money. He sent out an appeal to the Answers in Genesis mailing list offering people a chance to buy bonds to fund the park, bonds issued by the city of Williamstown, Kentucky.

This isn’t quite TARP, but the bonds will be a small government bailout for AiG, using the city’s borrowing power to cut the cost of loans to build the creationist theme park. That probably doesn’t violate the First Amendment, according to a church-state attorney I ran this past, though he observes, “Bond financing is quite complex, and the analysis can differ based on what precise type of bond financing we are talking about here.”
Ham, it seems, is selling bonds rather than going through the usual tax exemptions route because he claims that Obamacare will require any venture that takes public money to provide for "abortion-producing drugs" to be offered. Therefore, to avoid the pitfalls of federal funds, Ham is going the bond route.  This is a problem but not for the reasons that Ham thinks:
First, the Affordable Care Act doesn’t mandate coverage for abortion. Indeed, since 1979, Kentucky law has forbidden insurers from covering abortion without the purchase of a separate insurance rider. My guess is that Ham is referring to the law’s mandate that insurers cover contraception, and claiming that birth control is actually abortion. This is a fairly common argument advanced by the radical religious right, since by defining pregnancy to begin at the moment of fertilization, rather than at implantation, and they can claim that birth control pills (including Plan B) cause abortion (PDF) by preventing implantation of the fertilized egg. Federal law and the medical community see it differently, but being at odds with the science is nothing new for Ham.
Also, as Rosenau points out, selling municipal bonds is still entangling the donors or buyers in government just at a smaller scale and has very little to do with whether or not abortion is supported.  I suspect that he is right in that the whole ark project is tanking and Ham is just trying to raise money in a somewhat less traditional route.  It doesn't help that there has never been an approved feasibility study for the undertaking.  Here is to hoping that the thing is never built. 


It looks like I have torn some ligaments in my right knee and have been laid up for a bit.  Back now.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Zack Kopplin Files FOIA Suit Against Louisiana Superintendent of Louisiana Department of Education

Zack Kopplin, the tireless crusader for good science public school education contends that the Education Department of the state of Louisiana has withheld documents and obfuscated regarding the details of the Louisiana school voucher program.  To combat this, he has filed suit in Louisiana court to compel the State Education Superindendent John White to release these documents.  As CenLamar reports:
The suit is designed—at long last—to ferret out what the process was leading to Jindal’s sweeping education changes—including whether there was a lack of record making or so-called “off campus” records retention, which is a particularly non-transparent practice of some government officials to hire consultants or third party firms to develop and store policy in order to shield policy making from the public.

In late May and early June, Kopplin submitted a number of requests pertaining to education policy, the overwhelming majority of which were either ignored or improperly answered. Kopplin alleges that, during the last several months, Superintendent White and officials at the Louisiana Department of Education have attempted to conceal, delay, and deny the production of public records.
This is not so different from what the Dover County School Board did in Pennsylvania in 2005, when they brought in copies of the execrable Of Pandas and People in the middle of the night when no one was looking.About his dealings with the Education Department, Kopplin is quoted as saying:
“Pretty early on, I knew this would be a ‘war of attrition,’” said Kopplin. “The hope was that if they didn’t legitimately respond to my questions, then I’d eventually stop asking them. But I never thought I’d need to file a lawsuit, and I never imagined the Department of Education would attempt to conceal so much. I had tried working with them. I even drove in from Houston to meet personally with their staff.”
This is what happens when politicians make education policy.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Discovery Institute Attacks Ball State's Decision to Allow Atheistic Seminar

The Discovery Institute has written an open letter to Jo Ann Gora, the president of Ball State University, asking her to be consistent with regard to the treatment of protected speech on campus.  Christian NewsWire reports:  
"If Ball State is going to ban faculty speech favoring intelligent design by claiming that it would violate the separation of church and state, then it must apply the same ban to faculty speech that promotes atheism or attacks intelligent design in the classroom," says Dr. John West, Vice President of Discovery Institute.

Discovery Institute is asking BSU to investigate its honors seminar "Dangerous Ideas." The sole textbook used in the course is an anthology edited by a prominent atheist in which the authors assert that "Science Must Destroy Religion," that "There is no God; no Intelligent Designer; no higher purpose to our lives," and even that scientists should function as our society's "high priests." The book contains an afterword by atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion.
In her published remarks on the issue, this is what President Gora said:
“Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory,” President Jo Ann Gora said. “Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses. The gravity of this issue and the level of concern among scientists are demonstrated by more than 80 national and state scientific societies' independent statements that intelligent design and creation science do not qualify as science.”

The question is not one of academic freedom, but one of academic integrity, she added. “Said simply, to allow intelligent design to be presented to science students as a valid scientific theory would violate the academic integrity of the course as it would fail to accurately represent the consensus of science scholars.”
Nowhere in there did President Gora ban faculty speech on the discussion of intelligent design on campus.  Instead, Ball State is banning the teaching of intelligent design in science classes because it is not established science (it is not science at all, for that matter).   The two are very different things.  Leave it to the Discovery Institute to conflate them.

The other peculiar thing here is which First Amendment clause has been used.  By demanding that the atheistic seminar be investigated, focusing on the religious nature of the course and contrasting it with intelligent design, John West is focusing on the establishment clause rather than the free speech clause and, thus, is agreeing that intelligent design is religious, in nature.  Otherwise, why would he care about a philosophy seminar promoting atheism?  This is a substantial shift away from the standard position of the Discovery Institute, which has continually put forth the idea that ID is not tied to religious practice or theology.  If it is going to be argued that banning it is a violation of the establishment clause then it must be. 

It is difficult for me to believe that this is what they really meant to say or that they could have made such a rookie mistake.