November 5, 2006 - November 11, 2006 Archives

My day was spent in the Twin Cities attending the inaugural public meeting of the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education (MnCSE), and I can safely say now that Science Education Saturday was a phenomenal success: a good turnout, two top-notch talks, a stimulating panel discussion, and an involved audience that asked lots of good questions. You should have been there! I expect that, with the good response we got today, that there will be future opportunities to attend MnCSE events.

I'll just give a brief summary of the main points from the two talks today. I understand that outlines or perhaps even the powerpoint files will be available on the MnCSE page at some future date, but give the organizers a little time to recover from all the effort they put into this meeting.

Continue reading "A summary of the MnCSE Science Education Saturday" (on Pharyngula)

This Worm Has Turned

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Imagine that you are a Ph.D. candidate in biology. You aren’t doing anything with charismatic megafauna; your focus is on invertebrates. Worms, really. But you’ve done some work on figuring out how worms move through substrate. It is good work, and you’ve been published in Nature on the topic. That’s all pretty cool.

Then, you find out that your research has been used as a prime exhibit in a political campaign to advance “intelligent design” and “teach the controversy” positions. That’s not cool.

Kelly Dorgan, though, has her own message about the misuse of her work, one that she has sent to the Ohio Board of Education, and that she has graciously given permission to be published here. Read it below the fold.

One would hope that politicians seeking to understand science education would turn to people who know what they are talking about, and avoid propaganda outlets. In Ohio, the propaganda has been dished out in large quantities by SEAO and the Discovery Institute. Fortunately, there are many science faculty at Ohio’s universities who have taken the time to advise non-scientists on the Ohio State Board of Education; they have made themselves available as a resource. There are professional scientific organizations in Ohio whose goal is better science education for students. Between these resources, a politician who wants to get serious about improving science education in Ohio has many choices in getting good advice.

Witt reviews Collins

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Jonathan Witt, fellow for the Discovery Institute’s Center for the renewal of science and culture, has written a review of Francis Collins’ book “ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”.

Witt objects to Collins’ interpretation of Intelligent Design, arguing that like many before him, Collins just does not get it… Or does he?

A few weeks back, I posted a rebuttal to the Casey Luskin/Michael Behe interview, which itself rebutted the Pallen/Matzke Nature Reviews Microbiology paper on flagellum evolution.

As I posted previously, there is a new organization in Colorado called the Colorado Evolution Response Team, or CERT. James DiGregori, a founding member of CERT and a senior colleague of mine, was interviewed on NPR’s Colorado Matters. The direct link to the audio file is here. It’s an excellent interview.

In other news, if anyone wants to know who won the South Carolina State Superintendent of Education race, tough potatoes. We will have to wait until at least next week to get closure on that. But the pro-science candidate currently has the lead, and that’s encouraging.

Desperate times for ID

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On UcD our dear friend Salvador Cordova shows how the recent political, scientific and legal disasters to Intelligent Design have made the movement desperate for some ‘good news’. According to Sal, the good news comes in the form of 30% of community college professors considering ID to be science.

So let’s look at the study in question:

The study was done by two sociologists, Neil Gross of Harvard University and Solon Simmons of George Mason University. They contacted 1,471 professors at religious and secular colleges and asked about politics and faith.

Source: Praying for an ‘A’ might not impress your prof

Honest Science Wins in Ohio

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As readers of the Thumb no doubt already know, honest science won big in the Ohio State Board of Education elections yesterday. Four of the five candidates endorsed by Ohio HOPE won their races. In the fifth race, Ohio HOPE endorsed two of four candidates who unfortunately split 51% of the vote between them, allowing a third candidate to win with 38% of the total vote. Ohio HOPE was organized by scientists in Ohio a few months ago to support teaching honest science in K-12.

The most striking result of the SBOE election was the overwhelming defeat of Deborah Owens Fink. Owens Fink first brought Intelligent Design Creationism to the Ohio Board in 2000, offering a “two models” motion: teach both evolution and intelligent design. Later she followed the Disco Institute party line in advocating “critical analysis of education” (= Wells’s trash). When that was finally nuked in February 2006, Owens Fink commenced pushing a so-called “Controversial Issues Template” that in its original incarnation included global warming, stem cell research, cloning, and evolution as its targets. That effort was resoundingly rejected by the SBOE in October.

Now, it’s tempting to attribute Owens Fink’s defeat to the overall Democratic landslide in Ohio. She is closely identified with the religious right and has used their mailing lists to strong effect in her election campaigns and in the anti-science effort in the SBOE in 2002 and 2004. But I think that does not account wholly for her defeat. To give one counter-example, Sam Schloemer, a strong and outspoken defender of honest science on the Board and a Republican, won in District 4 with 67% of the vote, more than reversing the overall Democratic margin. The average Democratic margin in the statewide offices for which I have data at the moment was 55%-44%. Owens Fink got just 29% of the vote in her SBOE district, substantially less than the statewide average vote for Republicans and less than even Ken Blackwell’s meager 37%.

An important aspect of this win for Ohio is that it was a decisive statement by voters who knew what they were voting on. Owens Fink has been outspoken in her contempt for scientists. She told the NYTimes that the notion that there is scientific consensus on evolution was “laughable”. She and Chris Williams, a creationist biochemist ally, spent two hours on a young earth creationist’s radio program in the weeks before the election maligning mainstream science. When the “Controversial Issues Template” was finally deep-sixed by the SBOE, Reverend Michael Cochran, the other prominent ID advocate on the Board, complained that declaring an emergency and voting at the same meeting as the motion was made was merely a tactic to prevent careful consideration. Well, the voters had plenty of time for careful consideration and they resoundingly rejected ID creationist efforts to subvert the teaching of honest science in Ohio.


There has been a lot of competition, but here is one of the silliest things I’ve read this week on the ID blogs:

And who is Leshner to judge what will promote science?

In case you didn’t know, Alan Leshner is the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Randy Neanderthals?

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In population genetics, the influx of new genetic variants from one population to another after a period of genetic isolation is called introgression. One of the most intriguing questions in anthropology is the possibility and role of introgression along the Homo sapiens lineage, that is, in more mundane terms, the extent to to which our H. sapiens ancestors were willing and able to mate with other coexisting human species (such as H. neanderthalis, and possibly even H. erectus), and whether such exchange of genetic material played any role in our evolution.

Molecular evidence from available Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, which is transmitted to the progeny by females alone, has suggested that Neanderthal gals did not contribute to H. sapiens‘s current mitochondrial genetic diversity. Whether any trace of sapiens-Neanderthal interbreeding can be detected in nuclear genes, however, is still an open question. A paper appearing online yesterday in PNAS (free access, for once!) reports strong evidence of introgression for a variant of the microcephalin gene, known to be involved in brain development and size. To make a very long story short, it appears that a common human variant of the microcephalin gene originated on a chromosomal region that separated from the human lineage over 1 million years ago, only to come back (“introgress”) into H. sapiens about 37,000 years ago. John Hawks’s Anthropology blog has a couple posts with an excellent explanation of the story, so I’ll just send you there to read about it. John also hints at more evidence coming out in the near future for sapiens-Neanderthal hanky-panky, and of course Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, the whiz of ancient DNA analysis, has recently announced his goal to clone and sequence the Neanderthal genome, which is likely to yield more information in this regard, so stay tuned…

Tangled Bank #66

The Tangled Bank

This week's Tangled Bank covers everything from spacewomen to cavemen in The Tangled Bank - The Future, Present, and Past at The election news is all over, so it's time to read some science!

Go Forth and Vote

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The 2006 Weblog Awards

The Panda’s Thumb has been lucky in past elections, with Dover, Kansas, Ohio, and South Carolina coming out on the side of science. Once more our readers need to get out and vote. This time vote for us for Best Science Blog of 2006.

  • Polls close at 11:59 PM (US - Eastern) December 15, 2006.
  • You may vote once every 24 hours in each poll.
  • After voting in an individual poll you will be locked out from voting again in that poll (on the computer you voted from) for 24 hours.

If you are for pandas and sunshine, vote for Panda’s Thumb. If you like root canals and creationists, vote for the other guys.

Remember, vote early and vote often.

This thread is for discussing the 2006 Midterm Election. Make sure you watch the Daily Show’s Midwestern Midterm Midtacular series (archives available on the Comedy Central website, 1 hour special tonight) to get in the right frame of mind.

It will be interesting to watch the results, because there is a fair bit of evidence that politicians have been running from “intelligent design” this year, at least when they are trying to appeal to voters in the middle (get-out-the-base efforts, e.g. phone calls to likely supporters, seem to be different).

And the press has been paying attention in a number of races. See the NCSE news summary on Kansas, and the story about the Ohio Board of Election race between Deborah Owens-Fink and challenger Tom Sawyer: “Evolution Debate at Center of Ohio Board of Education Race.” There is little polling for such elections, and voter turnout is typically very low for (a) midterm elections and (b) local races. So it is very hard to predict how things will turn out.

State-wide races are also important to watch – notably, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is facing a tough challenge, and has been running from ID ever since the Kitzmiller v. Dover loss (before that, he was the biggest friend the ID movement had in Congress). The issue has also come up in Michigan and dozens of other states.

I know that the official Kansas election returns are here. But please post links to the returns for other races, news stories on the issue, etc.

DO GEESE SEE GOD? (And should we even try to know?)

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Last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education carries an excerpt (note: subscription required) from Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine, a book by Columbia University Professor Richard P. Sloan on the relationship between medical science and religion. Obviously a very hot topic, especially after the loud salvo coming from Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and the sharp reverberations it generated in both printed and online form (not to mention the reverberations on the reverberations).

I have not read Sloan’s book, but from its reviews and other writings by him, it is clear that he is no faith-healing enthusiast - on the contrary. Still, I strongly hope his book’s arguments are less naive than what this excerpt makes them look like, because unless the piece was meant more as a provocation and a teaser than a summary, they just fall flat Regardless, I think the excerpt is worth discussing here, and thinking about, because of its relevance not only for the general relationship between science and religion, but also because some of the issues it covers relate to the evolution/Creationism controversy.

Marc Hauser: Moral Grammar

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In earlier postings of mine, I mentioned the term “moral grammar” without providing the full references as to where the term originates and what it means. The term “Moral Grammar” was coined by Marc Hauser to describe a universal set or rules and principles to be used to build moral systems:

The core idea is derived from the work in generative grammar that [MIT linguist Noam] Chomsky initiated in the 1950s and that the political philosopher John Rawls brought to life in a short section of his major treatise A Theory of Justice in 1971. In brief, I argue that we are endowed with a moral faculty that delivers judgments of right and wrong based on unconsciously operative and inaccessible principles of action. The theory posits a universal moral grammar, built into the brains of all humans. The grammar is a set of principles that operate on the basis of the causes and consequences of action. Thus, in the same way that we are endowed with a language faculty that consists of a universal toolkit for building possible languages, we are also endowed with a moral faculty that consists of a universal toolkit for building possible moral systems.

Source: American Scientist The Bookshelf talks with Marc Hauser by Greg Ross

Jonathan Wells, the creationist who makes shoddy claims about developmental biology, has deigned to respond to my criticisms…but only indirectly, on another blog. It's an interesting response, in that it once again reveals Wells' misunderstandings of biology, and his sneaky way of inserting phony claims.

Continue reading "Well, well, Wells: Jonathan Wells reacts" (on Pharyngula)

It certainly has been a rough few days for disgraced Rev. Ted Haggard, quoted by AP/MSNBC as saying

The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality. And I take responsibility for the entire problem… I am a deceiver and a liar. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.”

Why mention this on the Thumb? Because Haggard is also a barnstorming “Goo to you by way of the Zoo”-style creationist. As proof, I submit this 6-minute YouTube video that looks to be part of Richard Dawkins’ BBC television series “The Root of All Evil.” The appearance of Rev. Haggard in this series was mentioned on the Thumb waaaay back on Jan. 12th, 2006 by commenter Dean Morrison.

Anyway, watch this 6-minute YouTube clip to see just how really smarmy and oily Haggard can be when he’s not trying to explain his sexcapades.

Hat Tip: Thanks to Raw Story

Time: God vs. Science

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Time has an interesting article on God vs. Science which includes an interview with Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins.

The article points out how the Intelligent Design movement may have inadvertantly given science a much needed boost, as more and more scientists express their frustrations with the level of scientific vacuity of this new form of creationism. Even more ironically, ID may have provided atheists a much needed boost.

Like Freudianism before it, the field of evolutionary psychology generates theories of altruism and even of religion that do not include God. Something called the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology speculates that ours may be but one in a cascade of universes, suddenly bettering the odds that life could have cropped up here accidentally, without divine intervention.

Few may have noticed that recently the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo opened an exhibition on homosexuality in the animal kingdom

The exhibit puts on display a small selection among the more than 1500 species where homosexuality have been observed. This fascinating story of the animals’ secret life is told by means of models, photos, texts and specimens. The visitor will be confronted with all sorts of creatures from tiny insects to enormous spermwhales.

The website shows some interesting examples of gay animals and provides some useful references.

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