April 17, 2005 - April 23, 2005 Archives

Dr. Eugenie Scott appeared on the MSNBC interview show "Hardball" on April 21st. There is a transcript available here. Along with host Chris Matthews, there was Reverend Terry Fox on the program. The topic was the push in Kansas to change public school science standards. Dr. Scott was able to make several good points despite the tendency of Matthews to interrupt his guests.

Continue reading "Dr. Eugenie Scott on 'Hardball'" (on The Austringer)

The Thomas More Law Center, the same legal group defending the school board in Dover, PA, is threatening to file a lawsuit against the Gull Lake Public Schools for telling two junior high science teachers that they could no longer teach creationism in their classrooms. Michigan Citizens for Science, an organization whose board I sit on, has been involved with this case for several months behind the scenes, since being notified of what was being taught there by a parent whose child was in the class. That parent is a biologist and was shocked when his daughter brought home not only pro-ID material, but young earth creationist material as well, including classroom material claiming that the Grand Canyon had formed in a single year as a result of Noah's flood. The parent contacted us and we made contact with the Gull Lake administration, the school board and the teachers. We worked to resolve the situation without the bounds of the law and responsible curriculum standards, even holding an in-service day with the teachers to show them the lack of scientific credibility in the material they were using.

At one point, an agreement was reached within the school district. They appointed a 7-member committee internally to review the situation and reach a decision. That committee included the two teachers who were using the material, the principals of both the junior high and high school, the superintendent and two other science teachers. They all agreed that the committee would review the situation, hold a vote, and then all 7 of them would back the decision of the committee regardless of how it went. That vote was 5-2 against using the creationist materials in the science classes, with the two teachers obviously being the only dissenting votes. But the teachers decided not to honor their agreement and are now threatening a lawsuit.

The fact that the lawsuit will be coming from the teachers instead of from the ACLU or Americans United is an important distinction between this case and the Dover case. It changes the legal claims entirely because the plaintiffs must challenge the constitutionality of the policy. In Dover, the plaintiffs, being the ACLU on behalf of local parents, are claiming that ID is an essentially religious idea and therefore to teach it violates the establishment clause. But in Gull Lake, the teachers must claim that their constitutional rights are somehow violated by not being allowed to teach what they want to teach, and that is a much tougher case to make. The letter that the TMLC wrote to the Gull Lake school board hints at the legal argument they will attempt to make, which is that not allowing the teachers to use creationist material violates their academic freedom. This is an argument that has consistently lost in court.

Also ironic is that the TMLC makes a point of arguing that ID is not creationism, yet the teachers in this case used a mixture of ID and traditional young earth creationist material. This will be fun to watch the ID crowd deal with, as they are loathe to have their ideas associated in any way with "creation science", despite the fact that all of their arguments originated in creationist material. But here we have ID and YEC material mixing together, even while their attorneys attempt to claim they have nothing to do with each other. Stay tuned for much, much more on this one.

Dino-Blood Redux

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On 24 March 2005, a team of paleontologists lead by Mary Higby Schweitzer published their discovery of dinosaur soft tissues recovered from the cortical bone of a T. rex femur. The three page paper in Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, presents the striking discovery of apparently preserved organic tissues. These include several cell types that the authors feel able to delineate by direct comparison to modern cells recovered from a recent ostrich femur. (Schweitzer MH, Wittmeyer JL, Horner JR, Toporski JK (2005) Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex. Science 307(5717):1952-1955). Within hours of their story’s release creationist email lists and bulletin boards were blazing around the world about the new scientific “proof” of the Earth’s recent creation. One small, and hopeful change from Schweitzer’s similar 1990s ‘discovery’ is that this time both she and Horner have made direct statements that this find is neither a contradiction of the sciences, nor of an ancient Earth.

Some people have wondered why Panda’s Thumb did not immediately post a response to this discovery. And because I have written on the creationist distortion of earlier dinosaur soft tissue research published by Schweitzer, Dino-blood and the Young Earth, on the TalkOrigins archive, some have wondered why I haven’t personally reacted. I even received a few emails that demanded that I retract that article. This is an absurd misunderstanding of that article, the evidence it was based on, and the research published by Schweitzer and various colleagues since the early 1990s.

It may surprise a few people, but I am not interested in dinosaurs. I rented the first Jurassic Park movie when it came out on videotape, and I skipped the rest.

The following is a guest post from Steven Thomas Smith. Steve is on the Senior Technical Staff in the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT, and more importantly is a Project Steve Steve. He attended the Jay Wexler/Francis Beckwith debate on the constitutionality of teaching ID in public schools at Harvard Law School, and gave us this report. We welcome this submission and encourage others to send us well-reasoned and insightful guest blog essays, particularly if your name is Steve.

Harvard Law School, said by some to be the world’s second best, demands of its students a “record of marked distinction.” Last year, Harvard Law Review editor Lawrence VanDyke, 2L, achieved this lofty status by publishing a besotted review of Francis Beckwith’s book about the constitutionality of Intelligent Design creationism in public schools. VanDyke’s insipid and error-filled piece (“not even wrong” in Pauli’s words) would have been eminently ignorable had it not appeared in the often respected Law Review, and this fact alone attracted a dogpile of criticism involving political columnists, science policy writers, lawyers, biologists, and the Panda’s Thumb. VanDyke, revealing that his motives were those of a clueless dupe, and not a Machiavellian operator, actually responded to this withering barrage with an even more cluelessly clueless post at HLS’s Federalist Society (in which he cites “Project Steve” as proof that 1% of scientists doubt evolution!), ensuring that much fun was had by all.

An anniversary for the Tangled Bank

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The Bathroom Wall

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With any tavern, one can expect that certain things that get said are out-of-place. But there is one place where almost any saying or scribble can find a home: the bathroom wall. This is where random thoughts and oddments that don’t follow the other entries at the Panda’s Thumb wind up. As with most bathroom walls, expect to sort through a lot of oyster guts before you locate any pearls of wisdom.

Just because this is the bathroom wall does not mean that you should put your #$%& on it.

The previous wall got a little cluttered, so we’ve splashed a coat of paint on it.

Hot-blooded crocodiles?

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croc heart

Crocodiles are beasts with an odd mix of features: they are ectothermic (meaning that they derive their body heat from their environment) reptiles, like lizards and snakes, but unlike those smaller critters, they have a fairly sophisticated, high performance cardiovascular system: they have a true four-chambered heart, just like us mammals and birds, and they also have a diaphragmaticus, a muscle analogous to our diaphragm that is used to inflate the lungs. At the same time, their hearts are relatively small—heart mass is roughly 0.15% of body mass, compared to 0.4%-0.7% of body mass for mammals—and generates relatively low systemic blood pressure.

It's weird. It's like they have this fancy, sophisticated engine in low-tech chassis, that the animal never revs up to its full potential. How did it get in there, and why do crocodiles have such fancy hearts?

The answer may be that they inherited it from more active, endothermic ancestors.

Continue reading "Hot-blooded crocodiles?" (on Pharyngula)

Everyone with a serious interest in biology is aware of PubMed and Genbank, the major literature and sequence databases at NIH. But there are a large number of more specialized and professionally curated databases that allow the researcher unparalleled glimpses into an organism’s genetics, molecular biology, physiology and evolution. Over the next few articles, I’d like to highlight some of these databases, showing how they are used and how critical they are for an understanding of the organism. These databases often have deep and highly technical content, but they also have much that is accessible to the non-specialist. And in genomics there are always more questions being asked than there are people to supply answers. As with planetary image analysis and observational astronomy, there may be some areas of opportunity for talented amateurs (especially those with a computational background) who wish to make a contribution to the field.

Are phyla “real”? Is there really a well-defined “number of animal phyla” extant and in the fossil record? Does the term “bodyplan” or “bauplan” have any consistent definition? Many paleontologists, notably Stephen Jay Gould (1989, Wonderful Life), have written books that take these concepts for granted, and, observing charts with many animal phyla appearing in the Cambrian, and few appearing afterwards, have reached the conclusion that there was something extra-special and unique about the Cambrian “explosion”. Creationists, both the traditional and “intelligent design” variety, have been only to happy to put their own spin on this situation, and argue that God, for reasons that remain obscure, engaged in a particularly active period of special creation for a few dozen million years back in the Cambrian. Recent examples include Stephen Meyer’s hopeless paper “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories“, the three or so previously-published versions of that paper, and Paul Nelson’s work in general (see a recent powerpoint presentation).

The Tangled Bank is nearly a year old

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The Tangled Bank

The Tangled Bank has been running for about a year now; here's the initial announcement from 13 April 2004, and the very first edition, on 21 April 2004. Now we have the 26th Tangled Bank coming up this week at Circadiana, so let's celebrate a year of science blogging! Send those links in to <coturnix1 AT aol DOT com>, or to me, or to host@tangledbank.net by Tuesday.

The Discovery Institute’s blog ‘Evolution News and Views,’ supposedly in existence to correct ‘misreporting’ in the media about Intelligent Design, isn’t doing such a hot job itself.

Their latest post by Rob Crowther (here) is entitled ‘AAAS Issues Gag Order to Scientists, Seeks to Stifle Debate.’

The article starts by listing a number of public debates (just the kind of thing the DI like to point as evidence that Intelligent Design is credible) between such people as Nelson and Shanks, Provine and Meyer, and so on.

Then Crowther writes,

But, no Darwinist will testify to the Kansas board of education. Amazing. Simply amazing.

Why? Because the Darwinian high priests at the American Association for the Advancement of Science have issued a sort of scientific papal bull, a gag order to scientists, telling them not to debate the flaws in Darwin’s theory before the Kansas State Board of Education.

What a bunch of uninformed and dishonest bull!

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