June 11, 2006 - June 17, 2006 Archives

A few days ago, on June 12, 2006, I attended the second, more-or-less annual symposium on “Teaching Evolution: Meeting the Challenge” at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The symposium was organized by Sarah Wise, a teacher turned graduate student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department (EEB), along with fellow graduate student Mike Robeson and Cathy Russell of the university’s Science Discovery unit. It was aimed at public school and college teachers, including elementary-school teachers. The symposium’s purpose was to “feature a full day of practical one-hour workshops and panel discussions on Teaching Evolution, interspersed with opportunities to interact informally with other participants. Additionally, resources for teaching evolution will be available to look at, including books, posters, software and other products to facilitate the teaching of evolution.” You may find information on the workshops here http://www.colorado.edu/eeb/EEBprojects/teaching/w… and many of the materials presented here http://www.colorado.edu/eeb/EEBprojects/teaching/w…

Approximately 70 people attended the symposium. Of those, approximately 50 % were high school teachers, 15 % were teachers from middle or elementary levels, 25 % were university faculty, staff, or students, and 10 % were from other scientific organizations such as the Denver Zoo and the Boulder Open Space department. In a survey given in conjunction with the symposium, 57% of respondents reported that they self-censor their teaching of evolution at least somewhat and/or receive indirect pressure to avoid teaching evolution from their school or community. I do not have any further information, but we may note that only 65 % of the respondents were school (noncollege) teachers, so the fraction that self-censors or receives pressure not to teach evolution may be as high as 85-90 %.

Last year, I wrote a post called From Darwin to Hitler, or not? This post discussed the book From Darwin to Hitler by historian Richard Weikart, who just happens to be a Discovery Institute fellow. The thesis of the book is that Darwin and his ideas – common ancestry and natural selection – somehow led to Hitler and Naziism, although the logic connection between the two sets of ideas is extremely murky. Weikart’s book has been used by the Discovery Institute (see e.g. here), ARN (see the description of the new video – also look carefully at the tasteful video cover, posted at left), and other creationist groups to promote exactly this idea, which creationists had already been promoting for decades anyway, just without an official historian behind them.

While it is tempting, and I think legitimate, to dismiss the whole thing as a severe expression of Godwin’s Law, there are more sophisticated criticisms. My major points in my post were that (a) Weikart goes out of his way to bash and dismiss the “Haeckel to Hitler” thesis promoted by an earlier historian (Daniel Gasman), noting among other things that Haeckel was a pacificist, but (b) Haeckel has much more direct links to Naziism than does Darwin – Haeckel was closer in time, location, idealogy, promotion of eugenics, influence on Germany in the early 1900s, etc; therefore (c} Weikart’s Darwin-to-Hitler thesis is even sillier than the Haeckel-to-Hitler thesis that Weikart himself criticizes. But I’m just a blogger.

Cordova Steps In It

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Over at Uncommon Descent, Salvdor Cordova offers this amusing essay about why ID is a far more useful framework than evolution for scientific research. I'm sure everyone will be shocked to learn that his argument is, well, not correct. I've posted a full reply over at EvolutionBlog. Comments can be left there. Enjoy!

Something rotten in Denmark?

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Never underestimate the ID advocates’ propensity for wishful thinking. Bill Dembski has just informed his acolytes that “International interest in ID is growing.” (bold in the original). The reason? Well, according to Dembski, Australians search for “intelligent design” via the Google engine at 6 times the rate per person of their American counterparts. The Danes, a whopping 20 times as much!

Before you start thinking that something is rotten in Denmark, and planning a moral boycott of delicious jelly-filled pastries by relabeling them “Darwin rolls” or something, think again. The only rotten thing here is Dembski’s understanding of how the comparative Google searches are tabulated, despite the fact that the information is clearly shown on the Google site.

dentalium_polar_lobe.gif
lobed_embryo_tease.jpg

The diagram above shows the early cleavages of the embryo of the scaphopod mollusc, Dentalium. You may notice a few peculiarities: the first cleavage is asymmetric, producing a cell called AB and a larger sister cell, CD. Before the second division, CD makes a large bulge, called a polar lobe, and it almost looks like it's a three-cell stage—this is called a trefoil embryo, and can look a bit like Mickey Mouse. The second division produces an A, a B, a C, and a D cell, and there's that polar lobe, about as large as the regular cells, so that it now resembles a 5-cell embryo. What's going on in these animals?

Continue reading "Polar lobes and trefoil embryos in the Precambrian" (on Pharyngula)

An AP story this morning discusses a new fossil find in China of an early bird, Gansus, from about 100 million years ago. The headline reads “Bird fossils in China called a missing link in evolution.”

Now this is a neat find, and I urge you to read the story, but I’d like to discuss the headline as an example of the way the popular press mischaracterizes science sometimes, and adds to public misconceptions about evolution.

Over at Darwin Central, some impressively-obsessed blogger has attempted to rate 50 creationist websites on their propensity to use commonly-mined quotes. Methods: (1) start with the quotes in the Talkorigins.org Quote-Mine Project; (2) search for those quotes on the creationist websites; (3) somehow put it all in a relational database; (4) tabulate.

The winner, with 75 of the 158 quotes listed at Talkorigins, was Anointed-one.net/. It is followed by a couple of sites that are primarily creationist quote-mine collections (studying the evolution of such collections would be an interesting project). Answers in Genesis (#9), the ICR website (#8), and Harun Yahya (#5) make the top ten list, but the famous Velikovskian Ted Holden, aka The Inimitable One, beats them all with his website bearfabrique.org (#4). The Discovery Institute comes out at a disappointing #30, but there is a lot of competition out there, and they spend a lot of their time trying to dumb down the education of U.S. children.

All in all, this is a rather impressive effort, and another example of the kind of “creoinformatics” that the web and modern technology makes possible.

Creationist amorality

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Here's a gorgeous educational site, The Virtual Fossil Museum. It has a nicely organized set of fossil galleries, all intended for use by the education community, and all appropriately credited. This is the way it is supposed to be done.

Unfortunately, that's not the way creationists do it. Here's a case of creationists caught red-handed in blatant theft.

Continue reading "Creationist amorality" (on Pharyngula)

Today’s lesson is about publishing. Not writing. Not scholarship. Just the act of getting words out in front of other people without any sort of tedious labor behind them. Oh, and most important, these words will have your name in the byline. The case study is Creationism - How Entropy challenges Evolution Theory by B. G. Ranganathan. It went up on the “Best Syndication” weblog on the 13th. Along with the featured article, you get the opportunity to buy Ranganathan’s book offering, Origins?, from Amazon, as it is prominently displayed in the left sidebar.

The first step is to pick your topic. When it comes to antievolution, there are three things going for you. First, there is a plethora of material to be recycled without risk. As antievolution advocates sometimes point out, their ideas have deep roots, tracing back at least to certain Greek philosophers. Recognizable material of somewhat more recent vintage (and thus easier to incorporate into a pseudo-essay that passes as modern) comes from authors like the Reverend William Paley. Authors such as George Macready Price and Henry M. Morris assembled many of the arguments together in various books. And, as I said, nobody cares if you steal it. In fact, others will be confused if you provide complete references and trace back claims to sources. That just isn’t done as a matter of course in this field, and, of course, it pays to pick up the social gestalt of your new career.

Second, there is a market. As Harvard Lampoon noted, it’s the sort of market whose pant’s pockets display the sort of scorch marks produced only by large quantities of spontaneously combusting cash. Antievolution, if it accomplishes nothing else, moves money around the marketplace from folks who read the same material over and over to those who, like you, are now learning how to be the sort of person who transfers material from old sources and puts your name over the top.

Third, the mere act of repeating various hoary old chestnuts will give you a solid sense of community. Others who are doing just as you do will welcome the opportunity to come to your defense if someone criticizes you. It gives them something to do other than look for more things to recycle. You will quickly learn to do this, too. Of course, the stances taken are also all borrowed from earlier writers, so it just comes down to copying slightly different parts of the usual sources in order to label and dismiss critical forays.

Babu Ranganathan has this down pat. Let’s take a look at his effort and see where he got his material.

(Continue reading… on the Austringer)

PT readers may recall Jack Krebs’s post from May that recounted the behavior of Kansas State Department of Education Director of Communications David Awbrey at the Kansas City Press Club on May 4, 2006. To summarize, Krebs caught Awbrey asserting that evolution and science were just atheistic metaphysics, and, according to Awbrey, so were dinosaurs:

Anyone see the origin, anyone see the Big Bang, anyone see the dinosaurs? These are all metaphysical speculations by people who look at the same evidence and disagree with what they see.

Krebs later challenged Awbrey at the forum, and Awbrey denied these statements, but Krebs taped the whole thing and posted the quotes and recordings here on PT.

Well, fast forward a month, and now Awbrey has resigned after only six months on the job. Coincidence? We report, you decide.

Hat tip to Red State Rabble.

The early word is that PT contributor Reed Cartwright (real webpage) (alter ego) has, despite being a PT poster, helping to construct the PT blog, and spending his time annoying creationists, managed to PASS his dissertation defense. Watch out world, here comes Dr. Cartwright.

I believe Prof. Steve Steve is planning the all-night bash in Athens as we speak. I wonder how spatially explicit population genetics sounds after a few pints of bamboo beer?

Media alert!

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We have some interesting events coming up on TV and radio: two interviews that pit the wise against outrageous fools.

  • Tonight (Wednesday), Jay Leno is having two special guests on his show. Ann Coulter, who is plugging her new anti-evolution, anti-freethought, anti-thought book of hate, is going to be on, and most wonderfully, with her will be George Carlin, of the famous irreverent irreligiousness and sharp, searing wit. Let's hope for fireworks.
  • Friday, at 3:15 ET, on NPR's Science Friday…it's Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science and advocate of good science, will be paired up with Tom Bethell, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, who most infamously said, "Darwin's theory, I believe, is on the verge of collapse…Natural selection was quietly abandoned, even by his most ardent supporters, some years ago."

These could be great fun. Tune in!

Updated with some missing text and edited for content June 15

A recent article in Physics Today discusses the search for SETI using optical detectors. On Uncommon Descent, Dembski claims that OSETI shows how the explanatory filter is used in sciences. Since Robert Camp already has shown why such a claim is inappropriate for SETI, I would like to explore Dembski’s latest claim as it applies to OSETI.

I will quote from the article to show how OSETI mimics the explanatory filter in the sense that it can generate false positives. Ironically, Dembski quotes the same passage, which suggests that Dembski accepts false positives for his explanatory filter, and which would render the filter useless.

OSET is, like SETI, an attempt to detect intelligently designed signals but unlike SETI ,which focuses on narrow band signals, OSETI relies on nanosecond optical pulses which it claims are more likely generated by intelligent sources because of the lack of known natural mechanisms that would generate such pulses.

Because no known astrophysical source could put out a bright nanosecond optical pulse, some SETI searchers have concluded that looking for signals from technologically advanced aliens is more promising with optical telescopes than with radio telescopes

If we find nanosecond pulses, we can’t lose,” says Horowitz. “If it’s not from an alien civilization, at least we will have discovered an astrophysical phenomenon that no one anticipated. Not a bad consolation prize.

Source: Physics Today, June 2006, http://www.physicstoday.org/vol-59/iss-6/p24.shtml…

In other words, if nanosecond pulses are found, science will be in a a ‘win-win’ situation since either the pulse indicates intelligent design or the pulse indicates a new astrophysical phenomenon. In other words, a design inference in OSETI, unlike the Explanatory Filter, still leaves open a natural explanation.

Over at Scientist, Interrupted there is an excellent review of a new book by Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin. The review speaks of “the PT boundary” and “the PT mass extinction”, but, sadly for creationists, it is speaking not of the Panda’s Thumb, but the Permian-Triassic boundary. The PT mass extinction is the largest and most severe mass extinction recorded in the fossil record, and (unlike the KT boundary, due to a bolide impact), scientists have not reached consensus on what the the primary cause(s) were.

Erwin’s book is entitled Extinction: How Life Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago. Check out the review and the book.

From a post on KCFS News today: (You can listen to the actual speech there, if you wish - it’s only three minutes long.)

Today I spoke at the Kansas BOE meeting during the Open Forum about KCFS’s letter to the superintendents. My main points were:

  • The Board’s standards are seriously flawed.
  • The Writing Committee’s Recommended standards have been completed, and are much better than the Board’s standards.
  • KCFS believes that, based on the Dover criteria, the Board’s standards could be declared unconstitutional.
  • The state BOE and their standards can’t be directly challenged because the state standards are non-binding, but if a district adopts and implements the state standards, then they are the entity that is at legal risk.

Therefore, KCFS urges districts to reject the Board standards and adopt the Committee’s Recommended standards.

The last bulleted point above caught the attention of some reporters and audience members, who told me later they appreciated having this distinction pointed out: it is the local district who could pay for the Board’s constitutionally flawed standards, not the Board itself.

My colleague in Ohio, Dick Hoppe, calls this the “Dover trap.” The Board standards may embolden districts with creationist leanings to bring ID creationist material into the classroom and to invoke the Board standards as their justification. At that point, the local district will become a potential target for a lawsuit - a potential Dover situation for the district. Districts should be aware of this danger.

Evolution by gene loss

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Sometimes it’s amazing just how little we know about the microbes around us. For precious few microbes, we know a good deal about virulence factors–genes and proteins that, when present, increase the severity of disease either in animal models or in humans (or both). However, much of this research has been done investigating acute infectious diseases, where one is infected, becomes ill, and gets better in the course of a few weeks to a month. Much less is known about factors that affect long-term (or chronic) infection. A recent study addressed one gap in this research, tracking the evolution of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa in chronically infected cystic fibrosis patients.

(Continued at Aetiology)

Today, June 13th, is primary day in South Carolina. Most of the would-be Democratic nominees are running unopposed, but the Republican slate is packed full for a number of races.

The race for state Superintendent of Education has no fewer than 5 candidates running for the Republican nomination. The SCSE page has the response of each candidate during a recent debate to the question of what they thought about teaching “alternatives” to evolution. Read the responses and see what you think. The two front-runners in the race are supposedly Karen Floyd and Bob Staton, and the winner of the nomination will be heavily favored to win the general election. You can read more about Floyd’s opinion on teaching evolution here. Staton is a bit harder to pin down. Most agree that he doesn’t feel strongly about the issue, and therefore his answers tend to be tactfully vague.

Also on the ballot today is Oscar Lovelace challenging incumbent Governor Mark Sanford.

There are three candidates running for Lt. Governor. Incumbent André Bauer is being challenged by Mike Campbell and Henry Jordan. The views on teaching evolution among the first two are not a matter of public record as far as I know, but Jordan has, shall we say, a rather unsubtle opinion. He also has complementary views on religious diversity.

Anway, if you are from South Carolina, please get out and vote. There are obviously other issues to consider, so choose your candidates carefully.

Apparently the petition to amend the Nevada constitution to include various creationist objections to evolution is going to die for lack of signatures. Petition author Steve Brown, a Las Vegas masonry contractor, has stopped the signature gathering effort a week before the June 20 deadline. See the NCSE news story for more. Hat tip to Red State Rabble.

If you haven’t seen the text (PDF) of the petition, I have posted it below the fold. It is…unique in several ways:

Larry Laudan, philosopher of science and Senior Investigator at the Instituto de las Investigaciones Filosóficas, National Autonomous University of Mexico, is often quoted by ID activists in support of their claims about the demarcation problem. The demarcation problem basically is a philosophical argument about how to define what is and is not science. Larry Laudan strongly criticized the ruling by Judge Overton in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. Laudan argued that contrary to Overton’s decision creation science is in fact testable, tentative and falsifiable.

Laudan is also the author of “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem”, printed in Michael Ruse’s “But Is It Science?”. The Discovery Institute and its various contributors have made extensive use of Laudan’s position on the demarcation problem. Ironically, it seems that Larry Laudan holds some very strong opinions in this area. In an article called On Methodological Naturalism and Intelligent Design (or Why Can’t Lawrence VanDyke Leave Well Enough Alone?) Brian Leiter simply went down the hallway to talk to his colleague Laudan.

Leiter: I’ve not only perused Beckwith’s book, I’ve read large parts of it, and it might be said on VanDyke’s behalf that the book is, in many respects, as misleading as VanDyke’s review (Beckwith is a bit more careful on certain crucial points than VanDyke, to be sure–but a competent book reviewer might have noted, rather than parotting, Beckwith’s misleading claims). My colleague Larry Laudan is, needless to say, well beyond being amazed anymore by the gross misrepresentations of his views–and of issues in the philosophy of science–in law reviews and by proponents of ID. (Didn’t it occur to VanDyke that I might walk down the hall and point out his nonsense to Laudan? He just rolled his eyes and chuckled.)

Leiter continues to explain:

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