February 19, 2006 - February 25, 2006 Archives

Teaching the controversy works

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Seems that the public and the media are getting educated about the scientific vacuity of Intelligent Design

A few months have passed and, as predicted, a rehashing of Intelligent Design (ID) is underway in the newspapers’ letter pages. This is a technique used by creationists to keep their religious-based ideas in the public limelight; an effort to equate untestable divinity with verifiable fact. Fortunately, there is now an almost universally accepted rational consensus that ID is not real science.

There is a rational consensus that Intelligent Design is not real science

Teach the Controversy?

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The Intelligent Design movement’s clarion call for “teach the controversy” is a very clever strategy; it’s the sort of thing that strikes otherwise bright and sensible people who aren’t creationists as agreeable. It sounds like a good idea as long as you don’t ask yourself the following questions: 1) Is ID legitimate science? 2) Are the ID movement’s criticisms of evolution scientifically valid? 3) What are they trying to achieve by altering science curricula? Given that the answers to these questions are “No”, “No”, and “To advance a religious agenda”, respectively, “teach the controversy” seems upon further analysis to be lousy educational policy. But to the uninitiated, “teach the controversy” appeals to notions of fairness, and moreover, the very wording of the talking point itself implies that there is actually a controversy to teach.

A couple of recent articles explore each of these issues and shed light on why this strategy is bogus. The first one by Stanley Fish recounts the history of “teach the controversy” when it existed as a sensible means for resolving genuine controversies within academia. The ID movement didn’t actually invent this idea (it’s an odd fact that none of their ideas appear to be original) but rather “picked the pocket” of one Gerald Graff, who came up with the notion some 20 years ago concerning wholly unrelated things. The second article by Bob Camp tries to ascertain the extent to which there actually exists a controversy among biologists.

Evolution hearts medicine

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This week’s Science contains the statement that Medicine needs evolution:

The citation of “Evolution in Action” as Science’s 2005 breakthrough of the year confirms that evolution is the vibrant foundation for all biology. Its contributions to understanding infectious disease and genetics are widely recognized, but its full potential for use in medicine has yet to be realized. Some insights have immediate clinical applications, but most are fundamental, as is the case in other basic sciences. Simply put, training in evolutionary thinking can help both biomedical researchers and clinicians ask useful questions that they might not otherwise pose.

The statement was written in part by Randolph Neese, an author of the book Why we get sick: the new science of Darwinian medicine. I’ve written before about working on getting doctors involved in the fight to teach good science and voice support for evolution, since medicine is a major place where the rubber hits the road as far as usefulness of the discoveries and theory of evolutionary biology. The authors also make some suggestions for reforming medical and pre-medical curriculum.

(Continued at Aetiology; see comments on the topic also at Pharyngula.)

Science: Ohio School Board Boots Out ID

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TrojanPandaSmall[1].jpg In the February 24, 2006 edition of Science, Constance Holden writes about the devastating loss for Intelligent Design activists in Ohio.

SCIENCE AND RELIGION: Ohio School Board Boots Out ID by Constance Holden Science 24 February 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5764, p. 1083 DOI: 10.1126/science.311.5764.1083

Scientists are hailing the demise of an attempt in Ohio to sneak intelligent design (ID) into the public school science curriculum under the guise of a “critical analysis” of evolution. Last week, the Ohio Board of Education voted 11-4 to strike the words from its curriculum guidelines along with a creationist-inspired study guide. Evolution supporters called it a “stunning victory” and cited the influence of the December court ruling against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board in the first test case of injecting ID into biology classes (Science, 6 January, p. 34).

Indeed, while some have denied that the Dover decision would be a Waterloo for Intelligent Design, the Dover ruling seems to have played a significant role in the stunning reversal of the Ohio State Board of Education.

Many scientific organizations have spoken out strongly in favor of evolutionary theory and often also against the scientifically vacuous concept of Intelligent Design. The latest in the ever growing list are the entomologists.

, no meaningful or significant controversy exists within the biological sciences—entomology included—about the centrality and legitimacy of evolutionary theory

Showing that scientists believe that ‘teaching the controversy’ is nothing but a sham.


in contrast, intelligent design—with its central tenet of irreducible complexity (i.e., aspects of living systems are too complex to ascribe to biological processes and therefore must have been designed by some intelligent force)—is neither predictive nor falsifiable and therefore does not meet the standards of science. Accordingly, intelligent design has no utility in entomology and – for the same reason – has no legitimate place in science classrooms at any level of instruction.

showing that scientists consider Intelligent Design to be scientifically vacuous

Read on for the full resolution text

Hat tip NCSE

Sex pays off

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Science 17 February 2006: reports:

Sex is expensive. For example, the daughters of an asexual female can reproduce at twice the rate of the progeny descended from a sexual female, assuming a sex ratio of one male to one female. So why is sex maintained despite this apparent disadvantage? One suggestion has been that the lack of meiotic recombination in asexual lineages results in the accumulation of mutations in a sexuals. Paland and Lynch (p. 990; see the Perspective by Nielsen) studied sexual and obligate asexual lineages of Daphnia (water fleas). Through a process of selective interference, the asexual lineages developed a fourfold greater number of mildly deleterious mutations in their mitochondrial genomes compared to the sexual lineages.

Paging Mr. Chromosome

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Forget prime numbers in the movie “Contact”, your own last name may be encoded in your DNA, reports Science

Paging Mr. Chromosome Your last name may be encoded in your DNA

A genetic study of British men finds a one in four chance that two strangers with the same last name share an ancestor. The relationship implies that certain surnames have a unique DNA signature–a fact that could help police narrow down suspects in some unsolved cases. But the criminally intent John Smiths of the world need not worry, because the signatures are found predominantly for rare surnames.

Now that’s a ‘Design Inference’

‘Jurassic beaver’ unearthed in China: Fossil overturns ideas about mammals’ lowly status in dinosaur era

Another evolutionary Icon ‘bites the dust’

For years, the mammals living in the era of dinosaurs have been thought of as tiny shrewlike creatures scurrying through the underbrush. Now the discovery of a furry aquatic creature with seallike teeth and a flat tail like a beaver has demolished that image.

Ji Q., Luo Z.-X., Yuan C.-X.& Tabrum A. R. . Science, 311. 1123 - 1127 (2006).

See also Jurrassic Beaver swims into view Nature News, Michael Hopkin

Alleged photo of Charles Darwin taken by Julia Margaret Cameron, online in the Yale University collection[Note: See update at bottom of post] Over at Stranger Fruit, John Lynch has linked to a charming photo of someone who is allegedly Darwin, further allegedly signed by Darwin. The photo accompanied an Ed Larson article published in the November/December 2005 issue of Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society, produced at Boston University. Furthermore, it is found in the online archives of the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, in the Julia Margaret Cameron collection.

However, many of us Darwin fans think that this photo is not Chuck, and that someone, somewhere, has Officially Screwed Up. Mind you, it’s not quite as bad as 2004, when Barnes and Noble was selling the Autobiography of Charles Darwin with a photo of Alfred Russel Wallace on the cover, but a screwup nonetheless.

The question remains: Who Is That Bearded Man? Your poll options are below the fold.

Best Community Nomination


Good news, we have been nominated for the Best Blog Community. Voting will open at the end of the week.


My daughter is learning about evolution in high school right now, and the problem isn't with the instructor, who is fine, but her peers, who complain that they don't see the connections. She mentioned specifically yesterday that the teacher had shown a cladogram of the relationships between crocodilians, birds, and mammals, and that a number of students insisted that there was no similarity between a bird and an alligator.

I may have to send this news article to school with her: investigators have found that a mutation in chickens causes them to develop teeth—and the teeth resemble those of the common ancestor of alligators and chickens, an archosaur.

Continue reading "Chicken, archosaur...same difference" (on Pharyngula)

There is good news for those who wanted a copy of Why Intelligent Design Fails, but were protective of their wallets and pocketbooks. Rutgers University Press now has the popular Matt Young and Taner Edis anthology available in paperback, at a sale price of $19.96. Yes, there is sales tax to be added, but there’s free shipping for web orders. I paid more for dinner at the AAAS conference hotel restaurant.

Be sure to check out Taner Edis’s page on WIDF, which links to reviews.

The slippery slope controversy

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A little known secret is quickly growing into a worldwide scandal of unimaginable size and intensity: scientists do not know why ice is slippery. I am sure that many among you remember the textbook explanation that the pressure of the ice skate melts the ice and the skate slides on the water which then freezes. But now, the dedicated reporters of the New York Times have uncovered the scandal which is growing into what some claim to be the Waterloo for the Melting Ice Theory (MIT).

It seems that the mainstream media is catching on to the tactics by the Discovery Institute. When the Discovery Instute unveiled, several days after the NCSE Project Steve reached 700 signatures, that more than 500 ‘scientists’ had signed a statement stating that “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”, a New York Times reporter wasted no time to do some investigative reporting.

Those who are familiar with Darwin’s work would consider the statement itself rather unimpressive. Darwin himself argued that he did not think that natural selection was the only mechanism of evolution. Thus the real controversy may be that the fact that over 500 people have signed it is used by the Discovery Institute to argue that there is a ‘real controversy’ about evolutionary theory. In other words, the petition seems to serve to strengthen the attempts of the Discovery Institute to use ‘Teach the Controversy’ and ‘Critically analyze’ as backdoors for Intelligent Design to be taught. So what is the controversy about? Is it because evolution is scientifically flawed? Or are there other reasons why these scientists reject evolutionary theory. Let’s say perhaps because it conflicts with the religious faith? Could that be the case?

New York Times reporter Kenneth Chang has put this hypothesis to the test and interviewed many of the people who signed the statement and found something which most of the readers of PandasThumb may find unremarkable but which may come to a shock to those who have accepted the Discovery Institute’s claim that there is a scientific controversy.

Of the signers who are evangelical Christians, most defend their doubts on scientific grounds but also say that evolution runs against their religious beliefs.

Several said that their doubts began when they increased their involvement with Christian churches.

Some said they read the Bible literally and doubt not only evolution but also findings of geology and cosmology that show the universe and the earth to be billions of years old.

It gets better, much better.

AAAS and the Alliance for Science

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Greetings and salutations! I just returned from the AAAS meeting in St. Louis, and what a trip it was! I finally got to meet Wesley Elsberry and Nick Matzke of NCSE fame, and it was great to see Eugenie again. The occasion for these festivities? The newly formed Alliance for Science ran a three hour symposium entitled Antievolutionism in America: What’s Ahead? We had one hell of a speaker line-up. Dr. Scott kicked it off with her usual eloquence, and was followed by a slew of people to talk about everything from threats to fields outside biology, particularly geology and neuroscience, to the successes of Dover C.A.R.E.S. This symposium was unique because we recognize the plight of those on the front line and gave plenty of podium time to them. For example, Gerald Wheeler from the National Science Teachers Association, a certain pastor from this little town called Dover, and Michael Zimmerman of the Clergy Letter Project all got a chance to air their concerns and suggestions.

Not surprisingly the room was packed for most of the event, with standing room only in the back. The press even ate it up by publishing a story that included the Alliance for Science and a legislative initiative with which we are involved. The article did get one little piece of information wrong though: it suggests that the AAAS itself was involved in the creation of the Alliance for Science. This is not the case.

AAAS 2006

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I was at the 2006 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in St. Louis from February 17th to 20th. Nick Matzke and I manned the National Center for Science Education booth in the exhibit hall, but occasionally got to play hooky and attend relevant sessions.

Overall, it seems that the major scientific societies are waking up to the fact that antievolution poses a multi-level threat to science in general, and are trying to figure out what steps to take. Part of the mix is now the umbrella organization, Alliance for Science. This organization aims to attract both individual scientists and organizations to effectively make the case for the integrity of science education in the USA. This is an effort that was officially launched during one of the sessions on antievolution held at the AAAS.

Update: I have a gallery of photographs from AAAS 2006 at this page. There’s several of people visiting the NCSE booth, then pictures from a panel discussion on the 18th, pictures from the session on the 19th referred to in Ethan’s post, the press pass bash at City Museum, and the final picture is of a future NCSE Steve and his wife.

Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, presented the following speech “Science Does Not Need God, or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution,” at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla., Jan. 31:

Father George Coyne Wrote:


I would essentially like to share with you two convictions in this presentation: (1) that the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, while evoking a God of power and might, a designer God, actually belittles God, makes her/him too small and paltry; (2) that our scientific understanding of the universe, untainted by religious considerations, provides for those who believe in God a marvelous opportunity to reflect upon their beliefs. Please note carefully that I distinguish, and will continue to do so in this presentation, that science and religion are totally separate human pursuits. Science is completely neutral with respect to theistic or atheistic implications which may be drawn from scientific results.

A law student, Colin, advises the following event at the University of Kentucky:

On Wed, Feb. 22, the UK School of Law is hosting a seminar on “Religion, the First Amendment, and the New Supreme Court” at 12:00 noon. The speaker at the event is Thomas Berg, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas, and Co-Director of the Terrance J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy. As the notice says, “Everyone is invited.” I assume that refers to the public as well. It’s in the College of Law Courtroom, and being presented by the Federalist Society.

Normally this would be a ho-hum affair, with a speaker and perhaps a few questions. The event the next week, however, is what would be of penultimate interest to readers of both the aforementioned blogs. It is entitled, “Intelligent Design: Question and Controversy in Law and Philosophy.” The speakers are Prof. Brandon Look (Philosophy, UK), and Prof. Paul Salamaca (Law - Constitutional and Federal, UK). They’ll be talking about the restrictions the First Amendment places on public schools, where Science and Religion end, and whether Intelligent Design is really Creationism re-labeled. It’s called a “discussion” where they’ll both talk about the facts, arguments, and theories of Intelligent Design. The flyer notes that “Everyone’s Welcome” and will also be in the College of Law Courtroom on Monday, Feb. 27 at 4:00 p.m. It is presented by both the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society.

I would expect only the best of discussions from either of these professors. In fact, to take one side, and not objectively study the issue, would seem to contradict the entire method that we’ve built here in Law (Socratic) and also in Science (the basic nature of science is to question everything, even those things previously thought established). As a citizen in the camps of both I have a great desire to see there be some great discussion.

In full context, Ky. has a law on the books that allows the teaching of Creationism in Public Schools, but does not mandate it. In other words, it is not “against” the law to teach Creationism. It is KRS 158.177, and an interesting read. The notation is that it has been “repealed and superseded by the 1990 Ky. Acts” but to my knowledge it’s still published and law in Ky. Recently, Ky. Gov. Ernie Fletcher (who’s in the hospital with an infection right now, so let’s hope he’s going to be okay) also advocated the teaching of it recently in his “State of the Commonwealth” speech. The seminary where William Dembski teaches (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is in Louisville, and only an hour away so an appearance, I think, would not be out of the realm of possibility though not in a speaking role. Finally, the Ky. Law Journal has previously published a note, “NOTE: When May a State Require Teaching Alternatives to the Theory of Evolution? Intelligent Design as a Test Case.” It’s at 90 Ky. L.J. 743. It was published in 2003, and to my knowledge has never been cited.

During the 2006 Annual meeting of the AAAS in St Louis, the “Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology” organized an event for St Louis teachers called: AAAS Evolution on the Front Line.

The resources include powerpoints of the presentations and videos which I understand will be added at a later time.

Reuters reports how scientists have enlisted the help of the clergy in battling creationism.

American scientists fighting back against creationism, intelligent design and other theories that seek to deny or downgrade the importance of evolution have recruited unlikely allies – the clergy.

And they have taken their battle to a new level, trying to educate high school and even elementary school teachers on how to hold their own against parents and school boards who want to mix religion with science.


Following up on comments by the maker of Flock of Dodos, PZ Myersh has taken to task the idea that we ought to dumb down our message in order to entertain [summarized by PvM here, with links]. On the Dino List, Kent Stevens posted the following analysis of why science programming is so poor in terms of the sets of audiences and advertisers, which I think needs to be widely available. He has given permission to reproduce it:

The Calculus of Science Documentaries

[Read the rest on my blog, Evolving Thoughts]

The Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has released the following updated statement on evolution (I will discuss the statement and the activities surrounding this statement in a different posting). This powerful statement of the board explains what is wrong with ‘teach the controversy’ legislation.

Evolution is one of the most robust and widely accepted principles of modern science. It is the foundation for research in a wide array of scientific fields and, accordingly, a core element in science education. The AAAS Board of Directors is deeply concerned, therefore, about legislation and policies recently introduced in a number of states and localities that would undermine the teaching of evolution and deprive students of the education they need to be informed and productive citizens in an increasingly technological, global community. Although their language and strategy differ, all of these proposals, if passed, would weaken science education. The AAAS Board of Directors strongly opposes these attacks on the integrity of science and science education. They threaten not just the teaching of evolution, but students’ understanding of the biological, physical, and geological sciences.

AAAS Statement

Read on for more

The York Daily Record reports on the Ohio School Board of Education’s decision to drop the terminology ‘critically analyze’ from its curriculum pointing out that while ID activists were quick to argue that the Dover Kitzmiller ruling had no legal standing outside the school district it observes that:

Even so, other school boards across the country are heeding the words of U.S. Judge John E. Jones III, who wrote that, “To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.”

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