July 17, 2005 - July 23, 2005 Archives

As should be clear from the previous entries in this series, I am providing an account of the conference presentations that I attended, in the order in which I attended them. I attended nine talks at the conference, out of forty that were available (not counting devotionals). I mention this because a commenter to one of my previous entries rattled off a list of talks he challeneged me to provide scientific refutations to. Sadly, most of the talks he mentioned were ones that I did not attend. Such scientific content as there was in the talks I did attend was of such low quality that I am not optimistic about what was presented in the remaining sessions. I will discuss some specific scientific assertions made in the talks as I go, but the only one that I am planning to go into great detail on is the one by Werner Gitt, entitled “In the Beginning was Information.” That will come in part five of this series.

Now, back to the conference!

mouse head and neck

Neck anatomy has long terrified me. Way back when I was a grad student, my lab studied the organization and development of the hindbrain, which was relatively tidy and segmental; my research was studying the organization and development of the spinal cord, which was also tidy and segmental. The cervical region, though, was complicated territory. It's a kind of transitional zone between two simple patterns, and all kinds of elaborate nuclei and new cell types and structural organizations flowered there. I drew a line at the fifth spinal segment and said I'm not even going to look further anteriorly…good thing, too, or I'd probably still be trying to finish my degree.

Fortunately, Matsuoka et al. were braver than I was and they have applied some new molecular techniques to sort out some of the details of how the neck and shoulder are assembled. This is a developmental study of how the muscles and bones of the shoulder girdle and neck are derived, and what they've identified is 1) a fairly simple rule for part of the organization, 2) an explanation for some human pathologies, and 3) some interesting observations about evolution. It is very cool to find a paper that ties together molecular genetics, development, paleontology, and medicine together so inseparably.

Continue reading Development, medicine, and evolution of the neck and shoulder (on Pharyngula)

This one sort of fits how I feel, too:

Frank: The Jesuits taught me how to think. I haven’t felt safe since. –Homicide: Life on the Street

Monday, July 17. Morning.

After Falwell came David DeWitt, who directs the Center for Creation Research at Liberty University. He made only a few brief remarks, emphasizing Liberty's adherence to a literal interpretation of the Bible from “Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21” In particular, they believe Adam and Eve were real people and that God created in six literal days.

The Tangled Bank

Much to appeal to the scientifically minded is coming up on the weblogs.

First, The thirteenth Skeptics' Circle is available for reading right now at Respectful Insolence. This is the weblog carnival for critical thinking.

Second, the second I and the Bird is up—I'm impressed. It's long. There must be an awful lot of birdwatchers out there, blogging away.

Third, there is another Tangled Bank coming up next Wednesday at evolgen. If you've written anything on science or natural history, send a link to evolgen@yahoo.com, host@tangledbank.net, or pzmyers@pharyngula.org, and we'll make sure to talk about your writing.

Finally, I've managed to volunteer myself to host Grand Rounds next Tuesday. Now you may be thinking to yourself, "Myers is no MD; what are his qualifications to host a collection of posts by real doctors and nurses?" I'll have you know, though, that I am an accomplished neurosurgeon…it's just that all of my patients have been fish and insect embryos, and none of them have ever survived the operation. Keep that in mind as you submit your carefully crafted medblog articles to my caring hands.

Most species do their own evolving, making it up as they go along, which is the way Nature intended. And this is all very natural and organic and in tune with mysterious cycles of the cosmos, which believes that there’s nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fiber and, in some cases, backbone. –Terry Pratchett

The vacuity of ID: Falsification

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Jonathan Witt reports at evolution news on a letter in Newsweek.

George Will says the theory of intelligent design isn’t falsifiable–isn’t “a testable hypothesis.” Actually, particular design arguments are falsifiable. Design theorist Michael Behe, for instance, argues that we can detect design in the bacterial flagellum because the tiny motor needs all of its parts to function at all. That’s a problem for Darwinian evolution, which builds novel form one tiny functional mutation at a time. How to falsify Behe’s argument? Provide a detailed evolutionary pathway from simple ancestor to present motor. The flagellum might still be designed, but Behe’s argument that such design is detectable would have been falsified.

With the Intelligent Design (ID) proponents sucking up all the anti-evolution oxygen these days, it is easy to forget that the young-Earthers are still around. No doubt motivated partly by a desire to remind everyone they're still here, they have organized the Creation Mega Conference this week at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. That being just down the road from my digs in Harrisonburg, I decided to check it out. Over the next few days I will be posting several blog entries describing my experiences there.

You should also check out Ronald Bailey's account for Reason magazine. Judging from this first entry in the series it seems he is mostly giving a straight description of some of the goings-on at the conference. I will be focussing more on the specific claims made during the talks.

Also, if you would like a description of the conference that is more charitable than the one I am going to provide, check out the conference blog.

Now, on to the conference!

The satirical newspaper The Onion has an “Onion in History” feature whereby they present back issues with wild headlines about past events. This week’s “Onion in History” is an issue dated July 20, 1925, and contains a headline blaring, “SCOPE’S MONKEY TRIAL RAISES TROUBLING QUESTION: IS SCIENCE BEING TAUGHT IN OUR SCHOOLS?

It contains a few amusing articles, but sometimes the reality of the situation is bad enough that it’s impossible to exaggerate. Below the fold, we’ll compare an excerpt from one of the “joke” articles with an actual report from the ongoing Creation Mega Conference.

This one comes from my “arrogant things people say in the scientific literature” file.

There is no credible evidence to justify the portrayal on the January 2002 Auk of Microraptor with a thick, white downy coating of putative protofeathers (A. Feduccia pers. obs.). –Alan Feduccia Birds are Dinosaurs: Simple Answer to a Complex Problem The Auk: Vol. 119, No. 4, pp. 1187–1201.

Spindizzy in Seattle

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On the blog of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, John West throws a hissy about my recent dissection of the statement of two members of Bryan Leonard’s dissertation committee published by the DI. Mr. West takes umbrage at several remarks I made.

More below the fold.

With magic, you can turn a frog into a prince. With science, you can turn a frog into a Ph.D and you still have the frog you started with. –Terry Pratchett The Science of Discworld

Last week, Reed Cartwright posted a news item here about Jon Buell, director of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE), who testified that FTE was not a religious organization and that an early draft of the FTE supplemental textbook, Of Pandas and People, that used the word “creationism” still did not imply religious entanglement:

Buell said the word creationism was a “placeholder term.” The definition of creationism changed to include a religious context after the draft was written, so the writers changed the word, he said.

Buell is apparently referring to the 1987 SCOTUS decision in Edwards v. Aguillard as the event that tagged “creationism” as religious. So what are we to make of Buell’s own words in a 1983 publication from FTE that links “creation” and “theism”?

“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” –Douglas Adams Last Chance to See

Dembski, Decoherence and the brain

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Over at Dembski’s blog you will find him commenting on neuroscience.

Dembski Wrote:

My good friend and colleague Jeffrey Schwartz (along with Mario Beauregard and Henry Stapp) has just published a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society that challenges the materialism endemic to so much of contemporary neuroscience. By contrast, it argues for the irreducibility of mind (and therefore intelligence) to material mechanisms.

Unfortunately for Dembski, this is completely wrong. The paper, “Quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology: a neurophysical model of mind-brain interaction” Jeffrey M. Schwartz, Henry P. Stapp, Mario Beauregard, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 2005 argues for a quantum mechanical approach to the problem of mind-brain interaction. Quantum mechanics may seem really weird to the non-physicist, and involve things like “spooky action at a distance” but quantum mechanics is part of the material world in the sense that both scientists use it and Schwartz et al., are using the this paper [1].

Schwartz Wrote:

…brain is made up entirely of material particles and fields, and that all causal mechanisms relevant to neuroscience can therefore be formulated solely in terms of properties of these elements. (Emphasis added)

An electron is no less material in quantum mechanics for it being described as a probability distribution. What Schwartz et al. are arguing for is a non-mechanistic description (in the classical physics sense) of mind-brain interaction, not a non-materialist one (in Dembski’s sense). Furthermore, it is not “irreducible” in Dembski’s sense either.

Kennewick Man Hearing


You will recall Sen. John McCain's bill that would essentially give Indian tribes veto power over archaeology in America. A hearing has been scheduled for July 28. More at Overlawyered.com.

“…it is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance.”

Darwin Wrote:

“We can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universes, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act.”

Charles Darwin as quoted by Gavin Rylands De Beer

If you are looking for entertainment this week, I recommend you follow the Answers in Genesis Creation Mega Conference 2005 blog. The conference is starting today, July 17, and is running through July 22 – and it’s Featuring a stunning lineup of the world’s greatest minds in creation apologetics presenting their premier presentations. It looks like they will put some devotions and videos online, but if any Thumb-ites happen to be in the vicinity of Lynchburg, Virginia, and have the courage to attend for a day – you should come prepared to be stunned – we would be glad to post a report.

According to a story today in the Salt Lake City Tribune:

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, had earlier suggested he would propose legislation that would enforce the teaching of alternative concepts of human existence. Now he says conversations with the state superintendent of schools have left him confident that teachers who teach the evolution of humanity “will be dealt with.”

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