August 14, 2005 - August 20, 2005 Archives

Given the recent revelations concerning the political pressure brought to bear upon the Ohio State Board of Education to adopt faulty standards permitting non-science to be taught in science classes, it is time for everyone to take a few minutes out of their busy schedules and do something real.

Write the media in Ohio and make it clear that the next item of business on the SBOE agenda needs to be a return to the uncompromised, science-only standards produced by their standards writing committee, and remove the faulty, anti-science lesson plan adopted under the compromised standards.

Please use the media contacts page to write to the listed Ohio newspapers, and don’t overlook the national media as well.

Ohio has been the example that the Discovery Institute has used ever since late 2002 as the model of what they want in other states. Do we want gamed politics everywhere, just like we had in Ohio? If not, take the time to help take back the process from the anti-science extremists.

And be sure to visit the Ohio Citizens for Science web site for more information.

Amerindian mythologies present a rich source of creation stories. While these narratives offer spiritual alternatives to naturalistic origins, there have been few vocal native anti-evolutionists, an exception being Vine DeLoria whose books Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact and Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths: A Critical Inquiry both offer trite, predictable and weak arguments against evolution.

At Indian Country Today (“The Nation’s Leading American Indian News Source”) an editorial concludes:

Indian Country Today Columnist John Mohawk this year published a succinctly edited book, ”Iroquois Creation Story: Myth of the Earthgrasper,” which inspires with its clarity from ancient America. In fact, the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) creation story is the living basis of the ceremonial cycles in the longhouses of several reservations, source of origin and the truth of existence for traditional Haudenosaunee. Yet, no one here is suggesting that it be taught as ”science” in the public schools.

Every Native culture across the hemisphere (and cultures from all over the world) would be in its right to line up, then, each with its origin story and each justifiably, as much as the Judeo-Christian Genesis, with its right to believe that its story is the true way that human beings came into existence.

Given the choice, we prefer the non-religious and secular space, such as public schools guided by universally shared scientific values and methods. Let each people have its religious approach and way of prayer. The other approach is a slippery slope to dangerous manipulation and intolerance. What little the various human cultures and societies have in common resides in the life of science and its search for open-minded truth.

NCSE notes the re-appearance of Dr. Eugenie Scott’s article in California Wild Re-Posts “In My Backyard”.

And here is the article with the edits shown.

Update: The OSC letter is going up on IDist websites, so we presume it is legit to post it here. Right-click, Save As for the PDF.

Late today, a reporter called NCSE and, asking for comment, told us that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel had dropped Richard von Sternberg’s religious discrimination complaint against the Smithsonian Institution. The short version is that Sternberg, as an unpaid research associate at the Smithsonian, is not actually an employee, and thus the OSC has no jurisdiction. This was not particularly surprising, considering that PT contributer Reed Cartwright noted way back on February 2 that exactly this might happen.

Legally, this appears to be the end of things. However, as the Panda’s Thumb has documented over the past year (Meyer 2004 Medley, google search), the Meyer/Sternberg/Smithsonian affair has been a piece of politics from the beginning. The OSC’s opinion guarantees it will be politics to the end.

Slate on Haeckel, Proteus


Perhaps in some kind of cosmic penance for Slate editor Jacob Weisberg’s fight-starting editorial, today the Slate “medical examiner” desk has an excellent slide-show essay on Haeckel that actually gives a reasonably balanced overview of Ernst Haeckel, his science and art, and his legacy. The essay appears to be provoked by a showing of the new award-winning documentary Proteus, about Haeckel and the scientific and artistic “discovery” of the under-sea, invertebrate world. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but we are about due for a correction of the all-too-common Haeckel-was-pure-evil narrative that is very common among both evolutionists and creationists. On the other hand, part of the problem with Haeckel was that he tended to mix the science and the artistic, imaginative, metaphysical vision a bit too much, and from the looks of it Proteus may do this too. On the other other hand, all great science popularizations seem to have a pretty strong imaginative vision tied to the dry scientific facts, so mixing the two may be intrinsic to the work of the science popularizer. If this is so, then the thing to do is for readers to simply be alert to what science popularizers are doing, and mentally separate the two aspects of the work so that each can be considered on its own merits.

Haeckel Slide Show in Slate

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Haeckel.jpgSlate has an interesting slide show about Ernst Haeckel’s life and work. The commentary touches on the most controversial aspects of Haeckel’s legacy (doctored embryo drawings, racism, etc), but with the aid of some truly stunning pictures, it does a good job at offering a balanced look at this amazingly gifted scientist and artist.

Interestingly, a movie based largely on Haeckel’s story is about to come out. Too bad the casting was done long ago, because judging from the photograph in Slate’s second slide (reproduced here, Haeckel on the left), with a wig and a fake beard Dembski would have been a shoo-in for Haeckel’s part.

New CSICOP Column

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My most recent column for CSICOP's Creation Watch website is now available. I'm talking about mathematics for a change, specifically the attempts by creationists to use probability theory to refute evolution. Be warned, however, that this is part one of a two-part column. So don't be too annoyed by the cliffhanger at the end!

The Skeptic paper online

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Syntax Error: not well-formed (invalid token) at line 1, column 618, byte 618 at /usr/local/lib/perl5/site_perl/5.8.8/mach/XML/ line 187

Well, this is so brilliant I just had to post it: Ten Questions to Ask Your History Teacher, a parody of Jonathan Wells’s “Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher“, which is based on Wells’s book Icons of Evolution, which is thoroughly dismantled here and here. HT2PZ

Writing in the August 18th Palm Beach Post, editorial writer Jac Wilder VerSteeg sees right through the “Intelligent Design” fog to the heart of the matter.

I don’t read the stuff posted on Dembski’s sites for an obvious reason – I don’t expect to see anything there of substance and interest. However, I received emails from Dave Mullenix and Steve Verdon, who have quoted in their emails Dembski’s post, where he supposedly “replied” to my post titled “Skeptic on Dembski” placed on Panda’s Thumb (see here) and TalkReason (see here). This made me look up Dembski’s site to verify the quotes sent by Dave and Steve.

Well, I finally got around to finding and fixing the javascript bug which prevented people using Safari from browsing my personal blog: De Rerum Natura. Now I can install the javascripts on PT to improve the experience here.

WIDF, Appendix Errata

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I compiled an appendix for “Why Intelligent Design Fails” sometime in the summer of 2003. The appendix is a list of internet resources, both pro-science and pro-creationism, usually with brief descriptions of the target website. Generally, I merely copied some text from the site itself as the descriptive text.

Pleistocene Horses

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horse evolution

Weinstock et al. have published a solid and interesting paper that attempts to resolve some issues in the recent evolution of horses. It's good work, and shows how molecular analysis of fossils can complement morphological studies to give a clearer picture of organismal history. Unsurprisingly, though, creationists are already spluttering out nonsense about it. I'm going to give a quick overview of the scientific results, and then show some of the creationist babble in response (not too much, though—you'll quickly see how dishonest and evasive creationists are).

Continue reading Pleistocene Horses (on Pharyngula)

Not quite as good as some of their classics, but their article on intelligent falling provides a few chuckles.

“Anti-falling physicists have been theorizing for decades about the ‘electromagnetic force,’ the ‘weak nuclear force,’ the ‘strong nuclear force,’ and so-called ‘force of gravity,’” Burdett said. “And they tilt their findings toward trying to unite them into one force. But readers of the Bible have already known for millennia what this one, unified force is: His name is Jesus.”

Invasive species are nothing new to the Islands of Hawai’i. The first invasive species arrived with, and included, the first Polynesian settlers. Although there does appear to be some evidence that they may have caused the extinction of a few endemic species, the effects of these invasions were most likely relatively minor. Since the first western contact with the islands, the number of invasive species present has skyrocketed, causing a massive ecological disaster. If you want proof of the severity, you need not look any farther than the fact that Hawaii contains well less than 1% of the total land area of the US, but has over a third of the listed endangered species in the US.

At the moment, there is a new invasive species that is making the news here in Hawai’i: a species of “gall wasp” that has been wrecking havoc on trees of the genus Erythrina in Singapore, Taiwan, and a number of other places was found in a valley on Oahu in April. Since then, it has been found in a large number of other places on Oahu, and has started to turn up on other islands, including Maui, and a number of scientists believe that it poses a serious threat to a culturally-significant endemic plant - the Wiliwili (Erythrina sandwichensis). The threat is being taken so seriously that scientists have reportedly begun to bank Wiliwlil seeds as a precaution in case the extant population is completely lost.

So what does this have to do with evolution?

Continue reading (and hopefully find out) at The Questionable Authority:

Road Trip to Visit AiG

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As a long time creationist watcher, and frankly bored of sitting in front of my computer practically 24/7 here in Whitehall, Montana, I decided to take a road trip to Post Falls, Idaho to play with my new Canon 350D digital camera and see if Answers in Genesis is any less ridiculous then the last time I saw one of their hacks in person.

To answer the latter, no, they are not. But the rental car lady gave me this kick ass ‘05 Mustang, so the drive up, diverted by the fires in this part of the state, was a real blast. Beautiful scenery through Lolo National Forest, and then into Idaho showed some stunning geological formations. And every time I stopped for a photo I found the ‘stang did killer burnouts getting back onto the road.

Joe Bob Briggs says, ‘Check it out!’

Skip Evans

(Continue Reading … on Venomous Penguin)

The Columbus Dispatch reports that Governor Taft’s appointees on the State Board of Education who voted in anti-science changes to the science standards adopted in 2002 and a “critical lesson plan” in 2003 were contacted by his staff to make sure that they knew Taft strongly supported the “intelligent design” measures.

Quick program…

* Ohio Governor Bob Taft, now revealed as an active advocate of “intelligent design”. * Brian K. Hicks, Taft’s chief of staff when the Ohio science standards were being considered. * Elizabeth Ross, Taft’s education liaison at the time. * Wick, Craig, Schloemer: board of education members supporting good science standards. * Deborah Owens-Fink, Michael Cochran, and James L. Turner, board of education members and “intelligent design” advocates.

Catherine Candisky of the Columbus Dispatch Wrote:

In November 2002, after the board unanimously approved its intent to adopt science standards and just weeks before its final vote, Hicks wrote Elizabeth Ross, then Taft’s education liaison:

”You should call (Carl) Wick, (Jim) Craig and (Sam) Schloemer and let them know that the Gov. strongly supports the science standards that passed with a 17-0 vote. He does not want to see changes to the proposal and hope that these members will not support any changes to the standards.

”Let me know if I need to call anyone … we don’t want this thing to unravel.”

A few hours earlier, Ross had informed Hicks that the board’s leading advocate for intelligent design had called and was livid about an attempt to return to evolution-only standards.

Except that the proposed “return” was to science-only science standards.

Update: The Ohio Citizens for Science have issued a statement on the news of Taft’s advocacy of “intelligent design”.

As others see them

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Many Intelligent Design creationists have been given a hearing before scientists. William Dembski, for instance, has given a talk at the prestigious Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark, a fact he has made much of. For instance, here’s what he wrote to the National Association of Scholars (pdf):

How has the scientific community received my work? Of those who have actually read it, by and large I find scientists intrigued. I speak around the globe to science faculties (to take just one upcoming example, mathematicians at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen invited me to speak there about my work on the design inference in the spring of 2004).

And this is how he presented it on ARN:

These results have been thoroughly vetted. I first presented an overview of them at a technical seminar at the Niels Bohr Institute last year. There was no challenge to the mathematics.

However, a comment from Rasmus Pedersen, citing an article in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen, shows what the attendees at his seminar thought of it:

In the hour at his disposal in front of a friendly-minded but mathematically knowledgeable audience, Dembski wove like a freshman about to fail. He repeated his heuristic, hand-waving arguments endlessly, drew stains on the blackboard, but didn’t produce a single result of any mathematical value. Unfortunately, this is also what a mathematician gets from reading his “mathematical” book, The Design Inference, which, incidentally, is widely used to scare people who are intimidated by mathematical equations. It looks impressive, but in actuality contains no coherent mathematics. But now Dembski can boast that he, as a researcher of Intelligent Design, was invited to the Niels Bohr Institute as well as the Danish Technical University. What he doesn’t mention is that he will never be invited again.

The latest issue of the Skeptic journal is now available (2005, vol. 11, No 4). It contains, among other things, two articles pertaining to the Intelligent Design and its critique. One of them (pages 54-65) is my article titled “The Dream World of William Dembski’s Creationism.” The other article (pages 66-69) “Creationism’s Holy Grail: The Intelligent Design of a Peer-Reviewed Paper” is by Robert Weitzel.

Given Dembski’s protestations regarding the term “creationism” when applied to his and his cohorts’ views (with some exceptions, like Dembski’s armour-bearer, Salvador Cordova who has frankly referred to himself as a creationist), perhaps it can be expected that Dembski will reject the very title of my paper as well as the reference to his ideas as a dream.

Weitzel’s paper is about Stephen Meyer’s infamous article in June 2004 issue of The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Weitzel shows the lack of merits in Meyer’s article and favorably quotes the article by Gishlick, Matzke, and Elsberry which was posted both on Panda’s Thumb (see this) and Talk Reason (see this).

I just finished watching Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, a Will Ferrell flick about a local news anchor living in my beloved city of San Diego during the 70s. There’s a great exchange between Ron and his co-anchor Veronica Corningstone that perfectly captures what it feels like at times arguing with creationists.

Ron Burgundy: Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diago, which of course in German means “a whale’s vagina”.

Veronica Corningstone: No, there’s no way that’s correct. Ron: I’m sorry, I was trying to impress you. I don’t know what it means. I’ll be honest, I don’t think anyone knows what it means anymore. Scholars maintain that the translation was lost hundreds of years ago.

Veronica: Doesn’t it mean Saint Diego?

Ron: No. No.

Veronica: No, that’s - that’s what it means. Really.

Ron: Agree to disagree.

Note: The purpose of this essay is to offer a critique of intelligent design on theological, rather than scientific, grounds. It is not intended to provoke arguments over the validity of Christianity or theism in general because that is not the concern of this blog. Hence, we would ask that any comments be restricted to the subject of the theological validity of ID and its relation to science education rather than the rational validity of Christianity. Such discussions are fascinating, but are best left for other fora.

In a recent contribution I suggested the possibility of a designer who made such a perfect design that intervention would never be necessary. This is not something that could be demonstrated, nor is it something that I assert as a fact, but it is a design possibility. The point here is that a deist or theist can quite easily both believe that the universe is designed, and yet not believe that the “design” is going to be detectible. Since the whole is designed, there is no necessity that some portions of it look more designed than others.

The question is whether this hypothetical theist can allow any kind of intervention in the universe, without also assuming that such intervention can be detected and measured? I am frequently asked how I can oppose intelligent design, and yet see any kind of interaction of God with the universe.

It’s time for our next look at the Kansas Board of Education majority’s continuing crusade to push their own narrow-minded sectarian agenda at the expense of actual education. Today’s entry can be found on page 80 of the draft science standards (available as a pdf on the Kansas Department of Eduation’s website):

Grade 8-12 indicator 7: explains proposed scientific explanations of the origin of life as well as scientific criticisms of those explanations.

It’s worth noting at this point that this particular indicator is not present in the March 9th draft of the science standards (also available as a pdf) - the one written by the science standards committee without excessive input from the elected BoE members. It is a recent addition by the Board of Education. I am not, however, planning to devote time and energy to discussing the indicator itself. My concern is more with the “additional specificity” points that they list with this new indicator.

Read more (at The Questionable Authority)

Cambrian timeline

I've been reading Valentine's On the Origin of Phyla(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) lately, and I have to tell you, it's a hard slog. This is one of those extremely information-dense science texts that rather gracelessly hammers you with the data and difficult concepts on page after page. I am convinced that James W. Valentine is ten times smarter than I am and knows ten thousand times as much, and it's a struggle to squeeze that volume of knowledge into my miniscule brain pan.

One thing I would like to greatly condense and simplify is his discussion of the Cambrian 'explosion'. Misinterpretation of the Cambrian is one of the many prongs of the creationist assault on science; both old school Biblical creationists and the new stealth creationists of the ID movement have seized upon it as evidence of an abrupt creation—that a Designer poofed the precursors to all modern forms into existence suddenly, and without precursors, and that this observation contradicts evolutionary theory.

It doesn't. Valentine has an excellent diagram that shows how wrong the creationists are.

Continue reading "The Cambrian as an evolutionary exemplar" (on Pharyngula)

This is only peripherally on topic here, and I am plugging my own blog again, but over at The Questionable Authority, I have a couple of pictures that go a long way toward answering that classic presidential question: “Why isn’t our children learning?

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