April 2, 2006 - April 8, 2006 Archives

Fish can hold breath for months

If you thought you were the champion of holding your breath under water as a kid, think again. Crucian carp, a fish closely related to the goldfish, can live months without oxygen, scientists have discovered.

“Anoxia related diseases are the major causes of death in the industrialized world,” said Goran Nilsson, a professor at University of Oslo. “Evolution has solved the problem of anoxic survival millions of years ago, something that medical science has struggled with for decades with limited success.”

While ‘Intelligent Design” failed to resolve onf of the major causes of death, evolution has been far ‘smarter’.

Probably no area of law is more misunderstood and more abused for baseless threat value than libel. Forrest Mims' threat is just the latest example. I'm going to briefly explain how defamation law works and why it's silly and irresponsible for people who disagree with each other to threaten such lawsuits. I'll use Mims' accusation of libel as an illustration.

A number of people commenting on my last article noticed and highlighted the disappearance of stories related to the Pianka affair from the website of the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise. Dave Thomas picked up the story, and posted it here. I’m going to provide a bit more detail on the scope of the paper’s dishonest and despicable conduct, along with the text of an email that I’ve sent them.

Read More (at The Questionable Authority):

Boy, this is not turning out to be a good week for the creationists. Now the famous museum of Kent Hovind, aka Dr. Dino, has been closed. Read “Park could face extinction” in the Pensacola News:

In Mike Dunford’s PT blog The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise and Misrepresentation of Pianka., some commenters noticed that the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise was pulling all articles mentioning the Pianka affair. I was trying to get to that article on the Gazette as well, but was also unable to find it. That is, until I started hunting around the internet caches. I have retrieved parts of the article; see below the fold for before and after (scrubbing) comparisons. The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise must be more than a little nervous. It’s quite a story.

My opening bid: the April 2nd, 2006 Cover Page is still accessible on-line. I’m making a virtual wager (this is a virtual pub, after all), and that is that the Cover Page will be gone by Monday.

Will Chloe get the download before Mims’ minions destroy the hard disk? Will Harry Potter be able to defeat the spell of invisibility the Gazette is putting on all articles Pianka? Read on…


Mike Dunford has a post called The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, My Foot, and My Mouth that explains why the Seguin Gazette mistakenly yanked the Pianka articles, and notes that they are now all back on-line.

And back they are: you can now get to the articles for April 2nd, 4th and 5th at the Seguin Gazette.

A new mystery: in the last two stories, reporter Jamie Mobley’s name has been changed to Jamie Maxfield.

Several bloggers have dissected the Discovery Institute Media/Judge/Transitional Fossil Complaints Division’s pitiful response to the Nature report on the new fish-tetrapod transitional fossil, Tiktaalik roseae. The author, Rob Crowther, is just coming off his failed conspiracy theory on Dover and the ACLU, so I guess he might still be a little shaky. Compare these two statements, from the beginning and ending of the same paragraph of Crowther’s original post:

These fish are not intermediates, explain Discovery Institute scientists I queried about the find.

What is clear is that forms like Tiktaalik are a melange of primitive and more developed features.

They’re not intermediates – they’re just…intermediate!

UPDATE: As I was writing this, Crowther updated the piece. He must have seen the same problem I did. Look at the same two sentences now:

Jon Buell and the Dover Ruling


Jon Buell, the head of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics and publisher of the book Of Pandas and People (Pandas), has written a long essay criticizing Judge Jones’ ruling in the Dover case. That’s hardly a surprise, of course. The judge ruled against his position, how could he do anything but criticize it? Unfortunately for him, his criticisms don’t hold up under scrutiny because they are based on false claims, legal ignorance and, in at least one case, an outright lie. This may be a long one, so let’s get started.

Continue Reading at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Comments may be left there.

Mims – yes, Mims, the instigator of the whole fiasco about how noted ecology Eric Piana wants to kill everybody and the Texas Academy of Science agrees – is now sending around vague threats to those in the Texas Academy of Sciences that dare speak up for the non-insanity of their own organization and their recent Scientist of the Year awardee. Pharyngula has put up the email.

If anyone needed any more evidence that creationists are morbidly irony deficient, this is it.

—– **Update- 7 April 06, 18:00 HST ** All of the Sequin Gazette-Enterprise articles linked to in this article are no longer available through those links, and I am currently unable to find them as live links elsewhere on their site. I will be emailing the paper for comment shortly, and will attempt to contact them by phone for an explanation if that does not work. —–

It’s been several days since the attacks on University of Texas ecologist Eric Pianka first began, and there’s no end in sight. Yesterday, Texas governor Rick Perry’s office compared Pianka to the Nazis, and today he is being required to talk to the FBI so that they can make sure that he’s not a terrorist. Meanwhile, various portions of the right-wing community are continuing to rave against Pianka - the Uncommon Descent folks alone have no less than four posts up on the topic today.

Also today, the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise (the local paper that got the ball rolling on this whole affair) posted the transcript of another, more recent, speech by Pianka. This is interesting because the transcript is for the same speech discussed in the April 2nd Gazette-Enterprise article that was picked up by the Drudge report, sparking the national outcry. Having the transcript available makes it much easier to critically examine the news article about the speech, and to see how well the material in the article reflects what was actually said.

Read more (at The Questionable Authority):

Forrest M. Mims III is in the news with claims of sinister and monstrous evil revealed in Eric R. Pianka’s talk at the Texas Academy of Sciences (TAS) last month. Mims followed up with two petitions to the TAS against Pianka. As Mims himself reports, though, he was not alone in listening to Pianka’s talk. Kathryn Perez was also in attendance and, shortly after the story broke, related on several weblogs that she did not hear the things Mims claims to have heard. She is putting together a petition of her own for the TAS to discipline Mims, and has been collecting signatures from others who attended the talk.

Perez now is getting email from Mims telling her to cease and desist, claiming defamation of his character.

Well, what a difference a day makes. After several days of the wingnuts advertising, promising, and slavering over the prospect of the transcripts of Pianka’s lectures being put online, they have finally got around to doing it. Discovery Institute fellow/young-earth creationist/Of Pandas and People coauthor Nancy Pearcey has put up a (mysteriously partial) transcript of Pianka’s first lecture, the one that Forrest Mims saw at the Texas Academy of Science in early March. And the Seguin Gazette-Express, which has been credulously spouting Mims’s unsupported allegations from the very beginning, and which spread them to the world via the Drudge Report, has finally put up the promised transcript of Pianka’s second lecture, at St. Edward’s University (Austin, TX) last week, which is evidently has the same topic, title, and content. Pianka has given this lecture, entitled “Kill all humans with ebola!!”The Vanishing Book of Life,” seven times now, clearly in a clever attempt to hide his views from the public.

Well, we can now see why the wingnuts were dragging their feet: they haven’t got squat on Pianka. Read the first lecture. Read the second lecture. Even I was shocked: from the hysteria stemming from Mims’s and the Seguin Gazette-Express‘s reports, I was at least expecting a frothing-at-the-mouth, eco-wacko speech from Pianka. But it’s actually milder stuff than I was expecting. Sure, there are several statements and assertions that Pianka makes that I dislike or dispute, and he definitely gets emotionally worked up about what humans are doing to biodiversity – but there is nothing, nothing, indicating that Pianka advocates killing 90% of the world population, and nothing indicating that Pianka hates humanity.

Here is the shocking conclusion of Pianka’s lecture, where he exhorts his audience to go bioengineer airborn ebola and kill off as much of humanity as possible:

Trollart on Tiktaalik

| | Comments (51)

People have been talking about the discovery of two more new gaps in the fossil record of the fish-tetrapod transition, which occurred when scientists found a predicted intermediate fossil, which they named Tiktaalik. Well, Alaskan artist Ray Troll, at his website TrollArt.com, has gone one better and illustrated the T-shirt version already:

Someone in Texas forwarded this to me, from the Texas Academy of Science:

Subject: Texas Academy of Science and Dr. Eric Pianka Date: Tue, 4 Apr 2006 15:17:19 -0600

I dined yesterday with folks in San Francisco. The FASEB coference is going on now there. Larry Moran and John Harshman are attending, so I decided to visit with them. Both Larry and John should be familiar to readers of the talk.origins newsgroup. Harshman and I met before, at the Evolution 2005 conference in Alaska. Nick Matzke and Wesley Elsberry from NCSE came along, too.

John picked the place, Zante’s Pizza on Mission. Why there? “You can get pizza anywhere, and you can get Indian food anywhere, but if you want Indian pizza, you have to come here,” he explained. We got a large non-veggie version, and the rest of the fellows said it was delicious. I’m somewhat upset at how few restaurants there are that provide for my particular dietary needs.

Over dinner, the conversation started with how to make the point that evolutionary biology is not incompatible with faith while not encouraging a double standard on who gets to express their support of evolutionary biology. Larry is concerned that atheists are being told to keep quiet, and even being the targets of criticism, while people of faith loudly proclaim their religiosity when talking on the topic. Then, we discussed the recent breaking news – Pianka under attack by Mims, lies being made about Brian Rehm in the Dover, PA case, and so forth. Oh, and Wesley insisted that we get a picture of the group. He’s funny that way. From left to right, there’s Nick Matzke, Wesley Elsberry, John Harshman, yours truly, and Larry Moran. That John Harshman, he’s such a card. Next time, I’ll give him rabbit ears in the picture and see how he likes it.

Paleontologists have uncovered yet another specimen in the lineage leading to modern tetrapods, creating more gaps that will need to be filled. It's a Sisyphean job, working as an evolutionist.


This creature is called Tiktaalik roseae, and it was discovered in a project that was specifically launched to find a predicted intermediate form between a distinctly fish-like organism, Panderichthys, and the distinctly tetrapod-like organisms, Acanthostega and Ichthyostega. From the review article by Ahlberg and Clack, we get this summary of Tiktaalik's importance:

First, it demonstrates the predictive capacity of palaeontology. The Nunavut field project had the express aim of finding an intermediate between Panderichthys and tetrapods, by searching in sediments from the most probable environment (rivers) and time (early Late Devonian). Second, Tiktaalik adds enormously to our understanding of the fish--tetrapod transition because of its position on the tree and the combination of characters it displays.

Continue reading "Tiktaalik makes another gap" (on Pharyngula)

My colleague, Steven Mahone, with Colorado Citizens for Science, was taken by the latest episode of the popular series, “The Sopranos.” Evidently, producers, artists, and writers in the entertainment industry are very much aware of the whole evolution-creation-ID debate that affects our culture. Here is Mr. Mahone’s recap of the relevant scenes:

Seed magazine writing contest


Details can be found here. I thought this may be of interest to some folks here, as the essay topic is on that we’ve discussed here previously:

Amidst emerging competitive threats from abroad (China and India in particular) and heated debates over intelligent design, stem cells and climate change: What is the future of science in America? What should the US do to preserve and build upon its role as a leader in scientific innovation?

Top prize is $1000 and publication in Seed magazine. Entry deadline is June 30, 2006.

Over at the DI blog, Michael Francisco picked up on the Manzari and Cooper article and ran with it, coming dangerously close to crossing the line that separates legitimate criticism from outright defamation. He bluntly accused the school board of knowingly and intentionally making sure that they had to pay $1 million in attorney’s fees. Why would a school board willfully insure that a million dollars was taken out of the budget of the schools their children attend? Well, they wouldn’t, except in the fevered imaginations of demagogues like Francisco, who conveniently ignores the facts, the law and common sense in his attacks. But somewhere along the line, he must have gotten a warning from someone at the DI that he’d better edit his post or they were risking a lawsuit from the board because last night it suddenly contained all these weasel words and phrases missing from the original post. Knowing the tendency of the IDers to try and disappear things down the rabbit hole, I archived the original post and have placed the key accusations side by side.

Continue Reading at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Comments may be left there.

The “intelligent design” activists are promoting some new spin about the Dover case. (See previous posts: here, here, and here.) Basically the creationists have decided to blame the current Dover Area School Board for the million dollar legal fees that the district has to pay. The basis for the claim is that the current board rejected a proposal to recend the “intelligent design” creationism policy after the trial was over and before Judge Jones issued his ruling. As law student Michael Francisco of the Discovery Institute says:

In essence, the new Dover school board was fully aware that keeping the policy in place increased the risk of expensive attorneys fees. Manzari & Cooper explain why it now appears that there was collusion between the ACLU, AUSCS, and Dover school board members. If what Manzari and Cooper say is true, this alleged collusion allowed the school board to effectively guarantee the Kitzmiller decision at a purchase price of $1 million dollars. This appropriation of public funds should be cause for outrage. Check out the Manzari & Cooper article for more shocking details.

The ID movement has issued a great deal of rhetoric about “academic freedom” and “censorship” and how they allegedly can’t get research grants, even though they never seem to actually come up with specific research proposals.

Well, the shoe is now on the other foot. Nature today reports on a grant review received by Brian Alters, an education professor at McGill who specializes on evolution education, and who was an expert witness in the Kitzmiller case, much-cited by Judge Jones:

Doubts over evolution block funding by Canadian agency Study to measure ‘popularization of Intelligent Design’ refused funds. Hannah Hoag

A Canadian federal agency has denied funding to a science-education researcher partly because of its doubts about the theory of evolution.

Brian Alters, director of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University in Montreal, had proposed a study of the effects of the popularization of intelligent design — the idea that an intelligent creator shaped life — on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators and policy-makers.

At a public lecture on 29 March, Alters revealed excerpts from the rejection letter he received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The letter stated that, among its reasons for rejection, the committee felt there was inadequate “justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent-design theory, was correct.”

Another point about the American Enterprise article: had the new Dover school board eliminated the Intelligent Design policy while the case was under consideration, would that act have (in Manzari and Cooper’s phrase) “stave[d] off a courtroom defeat”? The answer is no.

The American Enterprise article that Wesley Elsberry blogged about complains about the ACLU seeking recovery of a million dollars worth of fees from the Dover School Board after its victory in the Kitzmiller case. Joe Manzari and Seth Cooper react scornfully to this: “If the ACLU happens to sue your small hometown and then demands $1 million dollars for their lawyers, would you call them generous and charitable? Strangely enough, that’s exactly what they’ve done to the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania….”

But there’s nothing strange about this at all. In fact, the entire purpose of attorneys fees in public interest litigation—the field in which I make my living—is to ensure that when people go to court to vindicate public rights against wrongful acts by the government, they are not forced to shoulder the cost of doing so. In Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622 (1980), the Supreme Court explained why people who sue cities for violating their civil rights should be able to recover money damages from the wrongdoing cities:

The knowledge that a municipality will be liable for all of its injurious conduct, whether committed in good faith or not, should create an incentive for officials who may harbor doubts about the lawfulness of their intended actions to err on the side of protecting citizens’ constitutional rights…. [Since] it is the public at large which enjoys the benefits of the government’s activities, and it is the public at large which is ultimately responsible for its administration…it is fairer to allocate any resulting financial loss to the inevitable costs of government borne by all the taxpayers, than to allow its impact to be felt solely by those whose rights…have been violated.

Id. at 651-55.

If government officials don’t want their cities to be forced to pay attorneys fees awards, they should take the wise step of not violating the Constitution, and then they won’t have to worry about it. In fact, the ACLU, like other public interest firms, go through a great deal of trouble and risk when they seek to defend the Constitution against wrongful official conduct, and much of the time their efforts are rewarded only by small donations from people who agree with their cause. It is actually pretty unusual that such firms get attorneys fees awards for their work, but when they do, not only do they deserve it for performing an important public function, but such awards also serve an important purpose in creating incentives for officials to act rightly, and for citizens to keep an eye on their elected officials.

Pim van Meurs alerted me to another just plain false broadside from the Discovery Institute*. Joe Manzari (American Enterprise Institute) and Seth Cooper (formerly of the Discovery Institute) say that Brian Rehm, one of the plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, had a “clear” conflict of interest in being part of the new school board that specifically turned down a proposal to rescind the “intelligent design” policy.

One might assume the new board’s first item of business would be to rescind the old board’s evolution policy. Not so. During their first meeting on December 5th, former Dover Board member David Napierski proposed a resolution to rescind the old board’s evolution policy (prior to any court ruling). Acting as a private citizen, Napierski procured the opinion of an attorney, who said that a vote to rescind the evolution policy could stave off a courtroom defeat and significantly reduce or eliminate legal costs and fees. Yet the new board rejected Napierski’s proposal to rescind the old policy.

What’s more, one of the new board members who rejected any attempt to rescind the old evolution policy was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit whose outcome was pending. Dover C.A.R.E.S candidate turned new Dover Board member Bryan Rehm was represented by the ACLU and AUSCS. Yet, in a clear conflict of interest, he participated in the new Dover Board’s consideration of the resolution to rescind the evolution policy.

Wow. That’s pretty bad, isn’t it? So what’s the evidence that bears upon this serious allegation of misconduct on the part of an elected government official? It turns out that the major claim is contradicted by information easily obtained online. I guess easily for people other than AEI “research assistants” and former DI “policy analysts”.

(* Correction added: Cooper is noted at the bottom of the article as a former policy analyst for the DI. We had to wait a few hours for the Discovery Institute’s official false broadside to appear. Now Ed Brayton has a great takedown of the official DI post.)

In 2004, Richard von Sternberg was editor of a journal that published a paper by “intelligent design” advocate Stephen C. Meyer. The society that published the journal issued a statement saying that the paper’s inclusion had been a mistake, and that they would tighten up the review and acceptance process. Afterward, Sternberg would complain that he was a victim of religious discrimination. Since then, ID advocates have made much of the alleged poor treatment of Sternberg, turning his name into a verb: to be “sternberged”, in their view, is to be stripped of “academic freedom”, the ability to take unpopular stances and express edgy and even antisocial opinions without fear for one’s job and other elements of normal day-to-day living.

That makes it sound like ID advocates are taking a stand for a principle.

But that would be the wrong impression.

“Academic freedom” is just a piece of convenient rhetoric so far as ID advocates are concerned: useful when they feel an ID advocate needs some cover, and trampled on whenever someone in academia says something that they don’t like.

Or is claimed by another ID advocate to have said something that they don’t like.

(Continue reading at … The Austringer)

The wingnut echo chamber has recently gone insane over the idea that Eric Pianka, an distinguished and much-loved ecologist at UT, advocates mass genocide by ebola in order to bring down world population. The allegation was leveled by disgruntled creationist Forrest Mims, and rapidly spread to the blogosphere via places like Dembski’s blog (three posts!) and Telic Thoughts, and then went to the Drudge Report and caused a national media firestorm appearing in my local paper by Monday morning. I smelled a rat from the beginning, and now I have been proved right. KXAN News36 in Austin, TX, has just debunked the whole thing, and for good measure has posted a 20-minute unedited interview with Pianka which everyone must watch to realize the full depravity of what the wingnuts have done here. Pianka says several times that Mims is a “crazy kook” that “distorted and changed everything I said.” The death threats that have flooded Pianka and the Texas Academy of Sciences are also a nice touch.

There are these fossilized embryos from the Ediacaran, approximately 570 million years ago, that have been uncovered in the Doushantuo formation in China. I've mentioned them before, and as you can see below, they are genuinely spectacular.

Parapandorina raphospissa

But, you know, I work with comparable fresh embryos all the time, and I can tell you that they are incredibly fragile—it's easy to damage them and watch them pop (that's a 2.3MB Quicktime movie), and dead embryos die and decay with amazing speed, minutes to hours. Dead cells release enzymes that trigger a process called autolysis that digests the embryo from within, and any bacteria in the neighborhood—and there are always bacteria around—descend on the tasty corpse and can turn it into a puddle of goo in almost no time at all. It makes a fellow wonder how these fossils could have formed, and what kind of conditions protect the cells from complete destruction before they were mineralized. Another concern is what kinds of embryos are favored by whatever the process is—is there a bias in the preservation?

Now Raff et al. have done a study in experimental taphonomy, the study of the conditions and processes by which organisms are fossilized, and have come up with a couple of answers for me. Short version: the conditions for rapid preservation are fairly easy to generate, but there is a bias in which stages can be reliably preserved.

Continue reading "Taphonomy of fossilized embryos" (on Pharyngula)

Editor’s note: Now that Judge Jones has issued his opinion in the landmark case Kitzmiller v. Dover, Professor Steve Steve feels that he is finally free to publicly discuss his role in the case. Prof. Steve Steve is the official mascot of the Panda’s Thumb blog. For the previous adventures of Prof. Steve Steve, see the this link. For the full story of Prof. Steve Steve’s expert witness experience, please click the link below.

Editor’s note #2: Alert reader David Fickett-Wilbar has noted that the name of Matthew Chapman’s great-great-great-great grandfather and Prof. Steve Steve’s true hero, pottery magnate and Lunar Society Member Josiah Wedgwood, was misspelled as “Josiah Wedgewood.” Prof. Steve Steve attributes this to some really good bamboo beer and the prominence of the Discovery Institute’s revealing Wedge Strategy during the court case. Prof. Steve Steve notes that at least he didn’t put Alfred Russel (one “L” please) Wallace’s photo on the cover of Darwin’s Autobiography. Prof. Steve Steve also notes that his copyeditor, Nick Matzke, has been sacked.

Courtroom sketch of Prof. Steve Steve by Mary Kay Fager, Courtroom artist, 645 St. John's Drive, Camp Hill, PA, 17011, or (717) 737-8088

Courtroom sketch of Prof. Steve Steve by Mary Kay Fager, courtroom artist. She is available for:

  • Conventions, Fairs, Shows, Board Meetings, Shopping Malls, and Parties
  • Commission work in oils, pastels, water color and ink
  • Personalized work in cards, stationary, pamphlets and program covers
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Write to: Mary Kay Fager 645 St. John’s Drive Camp Hill, PA 17011 Or phone (717)737-8088

Lauri Lebo >At trial, Dover’s sacrificial lamb’ Buckingham reflects on becoming defense targetYork Daily Record Mar 26, 2006. pg. 1/07

Salient quote:

While the Discovery Institute’s opposition to Dover’s curriculum policy has been widely reported, Buckingham said at first Cooper was enthusiastic and supportive. Cooper offered to send him materials about intelligent design.

“He’d call me to see if we were going to go forward,” Buckingham said.

But gradually, as the publicity continued, the attorney began to suggest that the board should not move forward on the curriculum change because it could lead to a lawsuit.

“He was afraid we were going to lose the case,” Buckingham said. “And he thought, if we did lose the case, it was going to set intelligent design back for years.

“He just didn’t think we were the proper people to be pushing this at this time,” Buckingham said.

The day after the school board voted in October 2004 to include intelligent design in its biology curriculum, Discovery Institute posted a news release saying it didn’t support the school board.

“I think they thought we jumped their gun, so to speak,” Buckingham said.

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