May 20, 2007 - May 26, 2007 Archives

In defense of Hector Avalos

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On Higgaion, a Religion Scholar and Christian named Christopher Heard (Associate Professor of Religion) has responded to the attacks by the Discovery Institute on Hector Avalos.

Have I mentioned that I disagree with Hector on a number of points? He’s an atheist and I’m a believer; that alone will tell you that we don’t see eye to eye. But I am outraged by the DI’s attempts to slander a reputable and ethical scholar just because they’re upset that he got tenure when their pal didn’t.

Once again we learn how desperate the Discovery Institute has become now that most of the news media have failed to respond to their virtual onslaught of ‘press releases’. Probably because the media was quick to appreciate the level of inflationary ‘logic’ so common in Discovery Institute ‘press releases’.

What is ironic to me is that while objecting to what they believe to be religious discrimination, viewpoint discrimination and attacks on academic freedom (of speech), the DI is quick to abandon such concepts when it comes to Hector Avalos.

On Pharyngula, PZ provides a comment response by Hector Avalos

The Discovery Institute has mounted the latest in a long string of creationist smear campaigns against me in Iowa. While I have never called for Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez to be fired, or even to be denied tenure, there are plenty of creationists who blatantly direct our university to fire me.

After all the Discovery Institute had decided to attack Avalos based on some pretty poor logic.

Determined not to be outdone by his fellows at the Discovery Institute, Dembski responds as well

Noticable quote:

Third, if Avalos has fudged on the status of this article—and has done so in a very public way—his CV may loaded with this type of fluff. Perhaps it’s time to start hunting for the real witch.

How are these kinds of ‘arguments’ going to help their fellow IDist Guillermo Gonzalez?

Fascinating… ID under pressure actually inflates…

Stanley Miller Dies

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Stanley Miller, who practically invented the scientific study of the origin of life, died Sunday at 77. For an article in the LA Times, see http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-me-miller24… and also http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/news/2007/US/488_… .

The Alliance for Science has put up the final results from their 1st Annual Evolution Essay Contest! Here’s a copy of their press release, in case you didn’t know about it and want to find out more:

High School Student Cites Disease Tracking and Antibiotic Resistance in Winning Evolution Essay

For Immediate Release

May 16, 2007

Arlington, Va. –Why should doctors study evolution? High school students from all over the nation answered this question with an essay in a contest sponsored by the Alliance for Science, a national non-profit that promotes good science teaching.

“The essay contest is part of our effort to bring together scientists, teachers and supporters of science education with the many religious bodies that have found no conflict between religion and science, said Dr. Irving W. Wainer, the chair of Alliance for Science. “Our goal is to reawaken America’s love of science.”

Gregory Simonian, of Los Angeles, CA, an 11th grader at Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, won the grand prize for his essay, which cites disease tracking and antibiotic resistance as two important contributions of evolutionary biology to medicine. Simonian will receive a $300 cash prize.

His teacher, Ms. Gloriana Chung, also receives prizes: $250 for classroom use; GeoSpiza, an interactive biology learning program, and a DVD on evolution from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Merve Fejzula, of Garfield, NJ, won second place for her entertaining essay about visiting her doctor’s own waiting room and considering the role of evolution there. Fejzula is a senior at [Enable javascript to see this email address.], in Englewood, NJ. She receives $250; her teacher Ms. Clare Kennedy wins the evolution DVD.

Third Place: Shobha Topgi, Palatine, IL, an 11th grader at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy wins $150, and teacher Dr. Richard Dods wins the evolution DVD.

Fourth Place: Linda Zhou, River Edge, NJ, 9th grader at the Bergen County Academies wins $100, and teacher Dr. Judith Pinto wins the evolution DVD.

“I hope this contest has helped students see that evolutionary science is not a matter of personal philosophy or worldview,” said Dick Lessard, AfS Essay Contest Director.”It’s hard, evidence-based science that directly affects our lives individually, as well as having major implications for public policy.”

Not half bad, considering we had the idea in late 2006 and threw the contest together at the last minute so as to try and correspond with Darwin Day 2007. A HUGE thank-you to all our donors for making this possible, and remember that this is just the tip of the iceberg! We’ll be back next year with most of the kinks ironed out, and hopefully some great prizes and new twists!

Also, if anybody is familiar with Drupal content management systems and wouldn’t mind offering up a bit of technical advice, please drop me a line at neurotopia AT gmail dot com.

In their desperate flailing to rescue their golden boy at Iowa State, Guillermo Gonzalez, the Discovery Institute has made another mistake: they tried to do a hatchet job on another Iowa State faculty member, Hector Avalos—he was attacked because he was promoted when Gonzalez wasn't, and he also happens to be an atheist, never mind that these were completely different departments and completely different people. Avalos has responded directly to the DI attacks at Pharyngula.

Once again, the DI has exposed itself as a nest of bumbling incompetents. I'm actually beginning to feel some sympathy for Gonzalez—how would you like to be volunteered to be a martyr for the cause? That's actually what's happening now: the kind of circus being erected around a fairly ordinary tenure case is going to be deeply counterproductive to Gonzalez's future career.

A recent conversation brought up the subject of one of my favorite animals—and one of the more remarkable examples of evolution: the Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus). The Fishing Cat is just that—a cat that subsists on fish, and that swims naturally. In fact, the Fishing Cat actually has webbed paws.

They’re a little bigger than a bobcat, about three and a half feet long (including tail), and are native to southeast Asia, where they live beside rivers, hunting for fish. They don’t just scoop the fish out with their paws; they swim and dive under the water to catch fish. There are several zoos that have Fishing Cats, including the National Zoo in Washington; you can watch a video of Fishing Cats hunting at their website. Personally, I’m fond of the cats at the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound in Rosamond, California; they have some adorable pictures of Fishing Kittens on their website.

Today is the 300th birthday of Linnaeus, aka Carl Linnaeus, Carolus Linnaeus, Carl von Linné, Carl Linné, etc. etc. Oh, heck, just call him Carl. Happy birthday, Carl! NPR reports that more than 600 birthday parties/science education events are going on around the planet this week – none bigger than in Sweden:

This month marks the 300th birthday of Carl Linnaeus, Sweden’s beloved botanist who gave order to the plant and animal kingdoms.

The Swedes will celebrate on Wednesday with a jubilee in Uppsala, complete with Linnaeus cream cakes.

And well they should, “Carl Linnaeus is by far the most internationally well-known Swede that has ever lived“!

The Tangled Bank

The latest edition of the Tangled Bank is at geek counterpoint. Lotsa linky, have fun!

Here are three animals. If you had to classify them on the basis of this superficial glimpse, which two would you guess were most closely related to each other, and which one would be most distant from the others?

ascidian.jpg amphioxus.jpg fish_larvae.jpg

On the left is a urochordate, an ascidian, a sessile, filter-feeding blob that is anchored to rocks or pilings and sucks in sea water to extract microorganismal meals. In the middle is a cephalochordate, Amphioxus, also a filter feeder, but capable of free swimming. On the right are some fish larvae. All are members of the chordata, the deuterostomes with notochords. If you'd asked me some years ago, I would have said it's obvious: vertebrates must be more closely related to the cephalochordates—they have such similar post-cranial anatomies—while the urochordates are the weirdos, the most distant cousins of the group. Recent developments in molecular phylogenies, though, strongly suggest that appearances are deceiving and we vertebrates are more closely related to the urochordates than to the cephalochordates, implying that some interesting evolutionary phenomena must have been going on in the urochordates. We'd expect to see some conservation of developmental mechanisms because of their common ancestry, but the radical reorganization of their morphology suggests that there ought also be some significant divergence at a deep level. That makes the urochordates a particularly interesting group to examine.

Continue reading "Ascidian evo-devo" (on Pharyngula)

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article that casts a great deal of doubt on the DI’s persecution claim by examining Gonzalez’ publication record in detail. The DI makes a big deal out of the fact that Gonzalez has 68 published articles, but the Chronicle examined his publication record and found that virtually all of those papers were from research projects that he did prior to coming to ISU when he was a postdoc:

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

The Discovery Institute is (still, and predictably) in an uproar over Iowa’s decision to reject Intelligent Design proponent Guillermo Gonzalez’s tenure application. The DI is claiming that the decision could not possibly be anything other than an example of discrimination against a brave non-Darwinian scientist by the Darwinian Orthodoxy. Personally, I think it’s something different. I think it’s about the money.

According to an article that was just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Gonzalez has not received any major research grants since arriving at Iowa. Casey Luskin of the DI points out that the tenure guidelines written by the department do not specifically mention funding as a requirement for research. That is true, but irrelevant. I’ve never heard of a tenure committee at a research university that does not look at outside funding.

Casey claims that if Iowa is using funding, it’s clearly just an ad-hoc reason invented to deny an otherwise qualified candidate tenure. It’s not. A professor’s ability to get outside research funding is a very good indicator of how well they will perform at a research university. Here’s why:

Read more (at The Questionable Authority):

Rekha Basu at the Des Moines Register has written an opinion on ISU’s denial of tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez. She raises some good issues:

In the past 10 years, a third of the 12 tenure applicants in the physics and astronomy department have been denied. Asked if Gonzalez’s Intelligent Design views were considered, department head Eli Rosenberg replied, “Only to the extent that they impact his scientific credentials.”

One hopes the ISU president’s response to the appeal will answer any lingering questions about bias toward Gonzalez for his personal beliefs. But Intelligent Design proponents are wrong to equate the exclusion of their theory from the classroom with academic bias. Professors are entitled to their own beliefs, but not to teach as science something that is not.

It is important to remember that the Tenure requirements are more extensive than suggested by some ID proponents who limit their argument to what the department requirements specify (and even there seem to mangle the requirements)

The university maintains the tenure denial was based on the professor’s teaching, service, scholarly publications and ability to get research funding, and not his Intelligent Design advocacy.

So let’s look at Gonzalez’s publication record, compare his record before joining ISU to his record after he joined, remembering that the customary 7 year period is of a probationary nature. During this period one has to show that the promise for success based on which one was originally hired for a tenure track position is actually playing itself out, This includes the ability to continue and expand the research, the ability to attract external sources of funding, and so on.

In this light, the responses by the Discovery Institute seems quite puzzling. Are they really interested in the best outcome for Gonzalez? Sometimes I wonder.

Of flies and free will

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On Uncommon Descent Denyse comments on a paper which found how flies have ‘free will’. While ID proponents are quick to argue that (Darwinian) evolutionary pathways cannot explain ‘free will’, I will show, in a future posting, that this is a fallacious argument based on the common appeal to ignorance found amongst ID claims. In this specific case, I will present how science explains the evolution of Levy flight patterns.

In the mean time I would like to invite any ID proponent to step forward with ID’s best explanation for the existence of ‘Levy flight patterns’ as found in these fruit flies.

The New York Times has a good story on the Darwin Correspondence Project, which now has 5,000 Darwin letters online. Some good bits are in there. Darwin when he was 12:

Just as I was going, she said she must ask me not a very decent question, that was whether I wash all over every morning — no — then she said it was quite disgustin — then she asked me if I did every other morning, and I said no — then she said how often I did, and I said once a week, then she said of cour you wash your feet every day, and I said no, then she begun saying how very disgusting and went on that way a good while….so then I went and told erasmus, and he bust out in laughing and said I had better tell he to come and wash them her self, besides that she said she did not like sitting by me or Erasmus for we smelt of not washing all over, there we sat arguing away for a good while.

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