March 2006 Archives

No joke: someone stepped in it


Fossil rhino footprint in, um...April Fool’s Day is just around the corner. And while this paper in the august journal Annales de Paléontologie isn’t supposed to be a joke, it definitely should be:

Miguel Telles Antunesa, Ausenda C. Balbino and Léonard Ginsburg (2006). “Miocene Mammalian footprints in coprolites from Lisbon, Portugal.” Annales de Paléontologie, 92(1), pp. 13-30. January-March 2006.

Abstract: For the first time, at least for the Lisbon Miocene series, uncommon ichnologic evidence has been recognized, i.e. mammalian footprints in coprolites. Three coprolites were recorded in three successive stratigraphic units, IVb and Va2 from the Lower Miocene to Vb from the early Middle Miocene. The largest, tridactyl footprint can be ascribed to a right foot of a rhinoceros. Size excludes all the rhinocerotids known from the Vb unit except Hispanotherium matritensis. A smaller coprolite (Va2 unit) shows a tridactyl, left foot impression of a perissodactyl. It is clearly too small for a rhinoceros, even for a young one. It seems to have been made by an Anchitherium Equid. The pes had a plantar pad as still found in the Mesohippus–Anchitherium lineage but not in more advanced Equids. Both tridactyl imprints may have been produced by the coprolite-makers. A large coprolite (IVb unit) that may have been produced by Brachyodus onoideus shows a few didactyl imprints. An artiodactyl trampled the dung with hoofs sliding on its surface and producing two incomplete imprints. It also trampled the dung in a more stable position, producing the best imprint, whose structure indicates it was produced by the left manus. The lack of lateral toe marks excludes suids (and Brachyodus, also because its size is too much small). It is from a small-sized ruminant, most probably a cervid, genus Procervulus. In all cases, defecation occurred on dry land, albeit in eventually or seasonally flooded areas near a river.

Hat-tip: alert paleontologist Alan Gishlick. For some quotes on the significance and methods of this research, see below the fold.

I have frequently commented that intelligent design (ID) is bad theology. Equally often, I am challenged by someone who will point out that ID may be bad theology from my point of view, while it might be good theology from someone else’s point of view. This is a very valid objection to what I have said, though I will defend the basic point. ID could be more correctly termed “theology done badly” than “bad theology.”

Nonetheless, since ID is being supported primarily by Christians, and evangelical Christians at that, it can be quite properly called “bad theology” as well, because it is bad theology within what is supposed to be the theological framework of most of its supporters. If you are wondering why there is a split amongst conservative Christians over ID, it is simply that many conservative Christians are saying either that this does not prove or that it is not even trying to prove anything that actually works within their theology.

In talking to Christian groups, I frequently find people who are shocked that I don’t support ID. “How can you not believe the universe is designed?” they ask. My answer is that I don’t accept ID precisely because I believe that the universe is designed. However it is disguised, however many chapters of mathematical formulas are provided, however many pious statements are made (whenever someone is not trying to pretend this is not theology), ID does not prove, and is not attempting to prove that the universe is designed. It is, in fact, attempting to prove that some elements are more designed than others, i.e. when we deal with specified complexity as a test of design, it means that we distinguish things that could happen randomly, and things that happen by design. Right or wrong, evangelical Christians are generally very uncomfortable with things that happen randomly. They are not looking for Paley’s watch on the seashore to prove that the watch is designed, but rather to prove that everything is designed.

Read more at Threads from Henry’s Web. Please post comments there.

Jonathan Witt of the Discovery Institute has lost it. The string of defeats for the cause of Intelligent Design creationism has had its toll, first Dover and now the Ohio ID lesson plan, and the poor man is clearly suffering from the strain, as you can tell from his latest hysterical screed.

First we get evolution compared to Castro's newspapers, with no criticism allowed; then the defense for including ID in Ohio is that there is a 3:1 margin of popular support. Two fallacies in one paragraph! Sorry, Jonathan, hyperbolic comparisons to communism and an appeal to popular opinion on matters of fact do not a defense of ID make.

Then he gets confused.

Continue reading "No more coffee for Mr Witt" (on Pharyngula)

Finally, an IDist has actually come out and proposed an ID model. Read it here. It is a version of Richard Hoppe’s Multiple Designers Theory, but admirably more specific. Note that the author, Robert Newman, is not some random internet wacko, he is a longtime contributor to the ID literature.

Hodge podge for $200, Alex


For once, I’m not the one writing the microbiology/evolution convergence stuff. Over at Mike the Mad Biologist, check out his post discussing Viruses, phylogeny, and Venezuela, discussing how phylogenetic analysis is used to track the evolution of Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus. As Mike notes, “This study is a really good example of how biologists use evolution to understand structure and function.”

On Aetiology, I have a discussion running about certainty, and the “I know what I know; do not confuse me with the facts” mentality that many of you accustomed to dealing with IDers/creationists will recognize.

Tangled Bank #50

The Tangled Bank

There's something else that's been going on for almost two years now: the Tangled Bank. And unlike creationist promises, it has delivered plenty of good, accessible science on a regular biweekly basis, and this week's edition at Island of Doubt is no exception.

An anniversary, of sorts


Once upon a time, about two years ago, I dissected a claim by Paul Nelson that he had an objective measure of developmental complexity that he called "ontogenetic depth". I thought it was very poor stuff: no repeatable methods, no clear description of exactly what he was measuring, and actually, it looked like he was just plucking numbers out of thin air.

Note that today is 29 March 2006. On 29 March 2004, Nelson left a comment on the post, promising to address the issues I brought up.

Continue reading "An anniversary, of sorts" (on Pharyngula)

Ideological Idiocy in Ohio

A column by S. Michael Craven at aptly demonstrates how one can come to an entirely inverted view of things starting from false premises and a false inference. The lead paragraph (below) begins with a false premise (that state science standards prohibit concepts from being presented in classes) and proceeds to a wildly false conclusion (that science teachers somehow are prevented from teaching material that is already in their textbooks).

This past February the Ohio State Board of Education voted 11-4 to remove all language that was critical of evolution from its state’s science curriculum. Previously, Ohio’s public school science guidelines said that students should be free to “describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” The decision by the State Board of Education effectively eliminates that freedom. This means that science teachers and students are no longer authorized to discuss scientific evidence that questions the claims of Darwin’s theory.

No, Michael, the board’s decision doesn’t remove any “freedom” to discuss “scientific evidence that questions the claims of Darwin’s theory”. What it removed was wording that was specifically being treated as an invitation to discuss a bunch of false, long-refuted arguments which hied from creation science through intelligent design and into the new label of critical analysis. Science standards establish what knowledge and abilities students should have; Ohio’s teachers can (and I assume often do) teach things that are not specifically mentioned in the educational standards. Popular high school textbooks do incorporate material about the limits of science and in biology discuss non-Darwinian evolutionary processes, such as genetic drift. What you won’t find in the textbooks, though, are the patently false arguments that have long served the antievolution movement. There is no good pedagogical reason to teach students falsehoods, though, so much of Craven’s screed completely misses the point.

[Continue reading… on Comments may be entered via the link there.]

Kansas Citizens for Science announces a class we are co-sponsoring with the Shawnee Mission Universalist Unitarian Church in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, entitled “Evolution 101 – Understanding Evolution for the Layperson.” On April 6 and 13, for two hours each, I will make a presentation and then lead a structured discussion on the core elements of the theory of evolution: in respect to the diversity of life on earth, what has happened, why, and how do we know?

You can read the full announcement at our new weblog, KCFS News at

USA Today has a front-page article on the impact of Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (March 27th, 2006). The article discusses Bobby Henderson’s exciting new book, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.


Dan Vergano of USA TODAYwrites

But not everyone finds the FSM so amusing.

It’s too bad that they’ll get attention for this sort of drivel when we have a robust scientific research program that the media doesn’t seem to want to write much about,

Discovery Institute spokesman Robert Crowther said in an e-mail interview. The Seattle-based institute is the leading think tank for intelligent-design advocates.

I’m puzzled. It seems the main output of Discovery’s “robust scientific research program” has been books like Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box,” or Phillip Johnson’s “Darwin on Trial.” So, by publishing a book about His Noodly Appendage, isn’t Henderson performing research as robust as that of the Discovery Institute?

Some interesting news from Ethiopia where scientists have uncovered a 250,000 year old, and mostly intact, human skull which could be the ‘missing link’ between Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens.

The face and cranium of the fossil are recognizably different from those of modern humans, but bear unmistakable anatomical evidence that it belongs to the modern human’s ancestry, Sileshi said.

Let’s await the scientific publication of their findings.

Original Press Release

Via Red State Rabble, we learn that Judge Jones was protected by the US Marshalls back in December, after his Kitzmiller Decision pulled back the curtain from ID and identified it for the warmed over creationism that it is. The reason for that protection? Threatening emails he received following his decision about ID creationism.

More details below the fold…

Paul Nelson offers his affirmative answer here. Over at EvolutionBlog I explain in some detail why he’s totally wrong. Enjoy!

The next time ID movement makes a stink about “censorship” – their word for informed criticism – read this. Almost forty years after the Supreme Court struck down the bans on teaching evolution in public schools, this kind of thing is still shockingly common.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to read this. It will be fun to see how many times the previous law review articles by DeWolf et al. (summary: “Intelligent design is constitutional because it is revolutionary new science, not creationism!”) are contradicted by the new DI book by DeWolf et al. (which, if it follows the website, will say, “Judge Jones was irresponsible and activist for ruling on the science question!”).

Appearing in this morning’s Greenville News (SC) online opinion section:

The theory of evolution does not and cannot explain so much about the universe that we know. For instance, when and how did water evolve? How does it happen that gravity can hold us to the Earth, and at the same time allow us to step up without any trouble? How did it happen that the Earth is spinning at the exact rate that keeps us from feeling that movement?

This is your brain on creationism. Be afraid.

(Hat tip to Rodney Wilson of SCSE.)

A recent press release underlines the growing controversy about Intelligent Design theory by announcing the release of two competing books exploring the theory that the universe is the product of intelligent design by a entity known as the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”

One book, GOD SPEAKS! The Flying Spaghetti Monster in his Own Words by Jon Smith has been self published. The preview shows how the evidence strongly supports Intelligent Design. The author shows how anagrams such as “debit card - bad credit” can also be found in Genesis.

Hunter’s Distortions


One device used by ID advocates to create the illusion of seriousness is the misrepresentation of scientific research. References to actual papers, coupled with the occasional bit of jargon, allow them to appear authoritative to lay people. But since there is nothing in the literature to aid their arguments, this appearance of authority can be obtained only by presenting a grotesque caricature of what scientists actually do.

For example, consider this blog entry from Cornelius Hunter, posted at the blog IDtheFuture.

The subject is this paper, from The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, entitled “Sodium channel genes and the evolution of diversity in communication signals of electric fishes: Convergent molecular evolution.” In it, the authors (Harold Zakon, Ying Lu, Derrick Zwickl and David Hillis) report some recent findings on the evolution of “electric organs” in certain species of fish.

What We’re up Against

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An elementary school teacher in Bennett, Colorado, has been suspended for showing her class a 12-min portion of the opera Faust, according to reports in the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

Specifically, Tresa Waggoner, a first-year teacher, showed her elementary-school class a section of a video that used sock puppets to animate the opera. The video featured the soprano Joan Sutherland, whom many consider the greatest soprano of her generation. Ms. Waggoner found the 30-year-old videotape in the school library. She had invited singers from Opera Colorado to perform at the school and used the video to prepare her students. The performance was canceled, and no reason was given, according to a spokesperson from Opera Colorado.

Parents accused Ms. Waggoner of devil worship and, in at least one instance, of not being a Christian, as if not being a Christian were somehow reprehensible. In fact, Ms. Waggoner, herself an opera singer, describes herself as a Christian and has two Christian recordings among her credentials.

Ms. Waggoner, the mother of two children, was further accused of being a lesbian aiming to promote homosexuality. Ms. Wagonner says she was - get ready for this - explaining “trouser roles” in opera. (In Faust , a young man in love with Marguerite is played by a soprano.) Other parents complained that the video deals with abortion; Ms. Waggoner says flatly that they lied.

Some parents thought that the material was inappropriate for small children and were mollified when they were assured (by whom is unclear) that a similar situation would not arise. But other parents were not so easily satisfied.

Panda’s Thumb made it into the finals for “Best Blog Community” in the Koufax Awards. It would be nice if there were at least one vote registered for PT in the final round vote. And have a look at the other final round votes, too, while you are at it.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has stepped into the controversy between religious fundamentalists and scientists by saying that he does not believe that creationism - the Bible-based account of the origins of the world - should be taught in schools.

Giving his first, wide-ranging, interview at Lambeth Palace, the archbishop was emphatic in his criticism of creationism being taught in the classroom, as is happening in two city academies founded by the evangelical Christian businessman Sir Peter Vardy and several other schools.

“I think creationism is … a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories … if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there’s just been a jarring of categories … My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it,” he said.

The debate over creationism or its slightly more sophisticated offshoot, so-called “intelligent design” (ID) which argues that creation is so complex that an intelligent - religious - force must have directed it, has provoked divisions in Britain but nothing like the vehemence or politicisation of the debate in the US. There, under pressure from the religious right, some states are considering giving ID equal prominence to Darwinism, the generally scientifically accepted account of the evolution of species. Most scientists believe that ID is little more than an attempt to smuggle fundamentalist Christianity into science teaching.

States from Ohio to California are considering placing ID it on the curriculum, with President George Bush telling reporters last August that “both sides ought to be properly taught … so people can understand what the debate is about.” The archbishop’s remarks place him firmly on the side of science.

The ABC is head of the Anglican Church which is the world’s 3rd largest Christian denomination. The cre/ID response, if there is one, is guaranteed to be fun. They will claim either that he lacks faith, that he doesn’t understand science like they do (as apparently over 90% of the world’s scientists don’t understand it like they do), or perhaps they’ll go full throttle and declare him non-Christian. For the Discovery Institute folks, I’m putting my money on option two. For Answers in Genesis and other YEC outfits, I’m going with three.

Remember how, according to the ID movement, “methodological naturalism” was supposed to be a Darwinist/atheist conspiracy to arbitrarily exclude ID? Well, let’s have a look at who coined the term. Ronald Numbers, one of the leading experts on the history of creationism, writes,

The phrase “methodological naturalism” seems to have been coined by the philosopher Paul de Vries, then at Wheaton College, who introduced it at a conference in 1983 in a paper subsequently published as “Naturalism in the Natural Sciences,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 15(1986), 388-396. De Vries distinguished between what he called “methodological naturalism,” a disciplinary method that says nothing about God’s existence, and “metaphysical naturalism,” which “denies the existence of a transcendent God.”

(p. 320 of: Ronald L. Numbers, 2003. “Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs.” In: When Science and Christianity Meet, edited by David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, pp. 265-285.)

A few additional points worth noting here:


What has always attracted me to developmental biology is the ability to see the unfolding of pattern—simplicity becomes complexity in a process made up of small steps, comprehensible physical and chemical interactions that build a series of states leading to a mostly robust conclusion. It's a bit like Conway's Game of Life in reverse, where we see the patterns and can manipulate them to some degree, but we don't know the underlying rules, and that's our job—to puzzle out how it all works.


Another fascinating aspect of development is that all the intricate, precise steps are carried out without agency: everything is explained and explainable in terms of local, autonomous interactions. Genes are switched on in response to activation by proteins not conscious action, domains of expression are refined without an interfering hand nudging them along towards a defined goal. It's teleonomy, not teleology. We see gorgeously regular structures like the insect compound eye to the right arise out of a smear of cells, and there is no magic involved—it's wonderfully empowering. We don't throw up our hands and declare a miracle, but instead science gives us the tools to look deeper and work out (with much effort, admittedly) how seeming miracles occur.

One more compelling aspect of development: it's reliable, but not rigid. Rather than being simply deterministic, development is built up on stochastic processes—ultimately, it's all chemistry, and cells changing their states are simply ping-ponging through a field of potential interactions to arrive at an equilibrium state probabilistically. When I'd peel open a grasshopper embryo and look at its ganglia, I'd have an excellent idea of what cells I'd find there, and what they'd be doing…but the fine details would vary every time. I can watch a string of neural crest cells in a zebrafish crawl out of the dorsal midline and stream over generally predictable paths to their destinations, but the actions of an individual melanocyte, for instance, are variable and beautiful to see. We developmental biologists get the best of all situations, a generally predictable pattern coupled to and generated by diversity and variation.

One of the best known examples of chance and regularity in development is the compound eye of insects, shown above, which is as lovely and crystalline as a snowflake, yet is visibly assembled from an apparently homogenous field of cells in the embryo. And looking closer, we discover a combination of very tight precision sprinkled with random variation.

Continue reading "Chance and regularity in the development of the fly eye" (on Pharyngula)

Evolution for Kids


Please don’t tell anyone, but I bought my granddaughter, Alex, a new book for her tenth birthday. Her birthday is in April, so that gave me plenty of time to read the book - and what a splendid book it is!

The book in question is Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas, by Kristan Lawson (Chicago Review Press, 2003, 144 pp., $16.95).

It is a well-formatted book, printed in two colors. The bulk of the printing is brown, so the wonderful old photographs and engravings appear almost sepia. The 21 activities are printed on a light-green background. At least few of the activities could well inspire science fair projects among the 9-and-up set for whom the book is intended.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I want to learn about information theory, I naturally turn to the creationists. Why, they know so much about geology, biology, and paleontology, it only seems reasonable that their expertise would extend to mathematics and computer science.

Take Nancy Pearcey, for example. Here, for example, we learn that Ms. Pearcey has studied philosophy, German, and and music at Iowa State; that she has a master’s degree in biblical studies; that she is a senior fellow at that temple of truth, the Discovery Institute; and that for nine years she worked with former Watergate conspirator and convicted criminal Charles Colson on his radio show, “Breakpoint”. Why, those seem exactly the sort of credentials one would want in an instructor of information theory…

Read more at Recursivity.

Same ol’, same ol’

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Well, tonight I let my macabre sense of fascination with creationism get the better of me, and I skipped the premier of the new Dr. Who on the SciFi channel and went to see the the Dembski lecture over at Berkeley. I should have stayed home. At least Phillip Johnson gets to his point and outrages you enough to get your blood flowing. Dembski just sort of meanders around and issues ultravague utterances about how maybe design did something somewhere, and how we should think this because “Darwinists” can’t list every single mutation that occurred over billions of years, therefore their research program has failed. Yawn. The only good bit was when Dembski put up a flagellum graphic with “liquid cooled” written in big bright letters across it. I wonder how long it will be until the aquariums add this label to the fish species descriptions.

CURSES! Foiled again!


Vizzini copy.JPGIt looks like my latest “Darwinist scheme” fell straight into Jonathan Witt’s clever trap.

See, in his recent response to my post about the parallelisms between Percival Lowell’s and modern ID advocates’ arguments, Witt says that he didn’t originally mention Lowell’s failed design inference on purpose, because

… knowing how irrational some ultra-Darwinists can be, I knew some of them would raise the objection anyway, and in the process, perform invaluable rhetorical work for the cause of intelligent design.

I tell you, these guys are just too smart for us!

Alas, when it comes to actually showing how “invaluable” the rhetorical work that I supposedly did for him was, Witt just has to resort to putting words in my mouth, to do for me the work he claimed I was supposed to have done for him on my own. (I know: Never mess with a Sicilian…)

Dear all, I must apologise for the lateness of my report on the December visit to London and the Natural History Museum. Blame Nedin, I do. I am in the midst of a walkabout in the wilds of Australia, encountering a number of highly venomous creatures, but more on that in a later update.

jah.jpg Anyhow, In December I travelled to London with Nedin. I, of course travelled at the pointy end of the plane, as befits my role as roving ambassador and famous panda. As you can see from the photograph, they have nice seats up the front end, plenty of leg room, and lots of bamboo shoots specially ordered. So, after a relaxing, comfortable 20 hour journey, I arrived in London, where I spent a pleasant evening going through Nedin’s duty free scotch (which was only fair as Nedin had not arranged for bamboo shoots to be available). The next morning (Saturday) we headed off to central London. Me, bright and eager, Nedin with a near visible burden of jet lag. Being a panda, I am of course, immune to jet lag. The list of attendees (as best as Nedin can remember) was: David Clark Tom Morris Jeremy Bone Bob Ding Steve (another one)

One of the better posts mentioned in yesterday’s Tangled Bank can be found over at Adventures in Science and Ethics. In that article, Janet provides a clear and detailed explanation of the limits of scientific expertise. As she reminds us, scientists are not near-omniscient beings, endowed with some sort of infailable ability to assess ideas across all the fields of scientific research. Scientists are primarily qualified to comment on matters within their own field. If a scientist is not an expert in an area of science, he or she should give the scientists within the other field the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they have a better understanding of their own area. As Janet points out, scientists (and other adademics) should be responsible enough to know their own limitations.

This sense of responsibility seems to be somewhat lacking among some of the more prominant proponents of Intelligent Design. It’s shown up in any number of places, including a recent article by well-known philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

Read more (at The Questionable Authority):

Over at Immunoblogging, Joseph has a multi-post series on the evolution of the immune system that I’ve been meaning to highlight, since obviously the claim that there’s no research done in this area plays a large part in IDists’ claims. So, some background reading on a few of the issues:

Part One Part Two Part Three and a bonus (if a bit older) post on Toll-like receptors here, along with a newer overview here.

Additionally, at the new Good Math, Bad Math, MarkCC discusses Dembski’s (mis)use of the NFL theorem and creationist use of probability. Check ‘em out.

…because paramount has apparently got a serious scriptwriter signed up to do Kitzmiller v. Dover: the movie.

It will be interesting to see how this turns out. I tend to think the only way to make Dover into a watchable movie would be to basically do an Inherit the Wind remake, which would require some substantial rewriting because the plaintiffs were parents, rather than the defendant being a teacher. But on the other hand, the poor teachers in Dover were pretty seriously oppressed by William Buckingham et al., so it might work.

In other news, Nova is doing a documentary on Kitzmiller v. Dover, which will apparently include some remakes of courtroom scenes.

Everyone has already decided that Tom Hanks should play Judge Jones…

Tangled Bank #49

Mars channels JPG.JPGIn an almost comical display of lack of self-awareness, Jonathan Witt of the Discovery Institute has recently taken inspiration from Google’s homage to Percival Lowell, the 19th century astronomer who argued for the existence of a system of engineered channels on the surface of Mars, to extract from this glorious scientific blunder the lesson that science moves, at times, “backwards”, i.e. rejects apparently established theories for more traditional, often religiously inspired views (something that Witt clearly wishes would happen far more often).

In addition to Lowell’s channels-on-Mars theory, Witt mentions in his article the idea of a Universal Beginning and opposition to spontaneous generation as other instances in which ideas originally found in the Judeo-Christian tradition have at some point worked their way back into the scientific mainstream. I’ll just pass on discussing Witt’s rather simplistic ideas about modern cosmology and abiogenesis, not to mention the history of science, since his arguments are just a rehash of well-known ID and Creationist talking points that have been abundantly critiqued before. I want instead to point to another obvious, and far more topical lesson that Witt could have taken from Lowell, but, alas, didn’t.

Larry Caldwell’s suit against Berkeley’s Understanding Evolution website has been dismissed for lack of standing. You can find the judge’s order at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

Edenomics 101

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I mentioned yesterday that Mike had a post on the war on epidemiology. That might sound a bit strange–doesn’t have quite the ring to it as Chris’s book. But, never fear, epidemiology is indeed under attack–or, at least, it’s being redefined by young earth creationists.

In a pair of articles published in the esteemed journal, Creation Research Society Quarterly, Jeffrey Schragin has put forth his argument that “the Bible’s epidemiology is scientifically sound” and that the “Creation Health Model (CHM) offers a more comprehensive understanding of health and disease than standard molecules-to-man evolutionary theory.”

(Continued at Aetiology)

Since they say this more succintly than I probably could, I’ll just quote from the email I received:

AAAS is providing educators with practical resources to meet the challenge of teaching evolution. For example, at a successful special event for local teachers during our Annual Meeting in February, we distributed a packet titled Evolution on the Front Line: An Abbreviated Guide to Teaching Evolution. Project 2061, our long-term science education reform initiative, prepared the materials, which included the educational benchmarks for evolution knowledge at specific grade levels and other valuable teaching tools.

You can access the guide, speaker presentations, and the AAAS opening video shown at this event at[…]/index.shtml.

AAAS has responded to mounting attacks on evolution, including attempts to insert intelligent design into science curricula, with a series of op-ed commentaries, letters, and high profile interviews. We have adopted a “local strategy” through which we intervene, whenever we can, at the local level where the real action usually is. From Kansas to Pennsylvania to Georgia and, most recently, South Carolina, we have defended evolution as one of the most robust and widely accepted principles of modern science. We are being heard, but there constantly are new audiences to reach. We encourage you to add your voices, as scientists and educators defending the integrity of science and science education in our places of worship, schools, and community organizations. Visit our website for in-depth resources and news reports for the press and the public:

Only had a chance to browse it so far, but looks like some good stuff.

On Uncommon Descent Doug Moran announced recently that

Brits to Teach the Controversy

“Creationist theories about how the world was made are to be debated in GCSE science lessons in mainstream secondary schools in England.

The subject has been included in a new syllabus for biology produced by the OCR exam board, due out in September.”

But as usual the ‘victory’ of Intelligent Design was mostly smoke and mirrors and short lived as the OCR Exam Board released a clarification. Why is it that Intelligent Design can only be succesful in our ignorance?

Over on the “ID the Future” blog, they are posting David Berlinski’s interview with himself. Interestingly, Berlinski doesn’t fare well:

… Mr. Berlinski, you have frequently been accused of being a crank, someone more generally participating in what has come to be called crank science. I know that …

DB: So?

… Well, is the accusation one that you accept? …

DB: Sure. It’s obviously true in essence, although I prefer to describe myself as an iconoclast, one whom history will vindicate …

… No doubt …

DB: But the point is the same, whatever the terms. But speaking of terms, maybe I spoke too soon. Look, it’s one thing to say that someone like me is a crank. That’s fine because it’s true. It’s quite another thing to talk about crank science.

… Surely crank science is what cranks do? …

DB: Surely. [snip – read the rest and decide for yourself if there is an actual point to all this somewhere.]

This might be an obscure in-joke or something, and Berlinski is actually being incredibly sophisticated and ironic (or just pretentious – take your pick). But with Berlinski, as with antievolutionists generally, parody is often impossible to distinguish from reality.


Last year, a new and unusual species of rodent was discovered in Laos, called Laonastes aenigmamus, or kha-nyou. Photos of the skull and an 11 million year old fossil can be found in “Laonastes/Diatomys/kha-nyou/rat-squirrel”, on Pharyngula.

New Law Review Article

Pandas Thumb's first law review article has been published in the newest issue of the Kansas Journal of Law And Public Policy. The article, "Piercing The Veil of Intelligent Design: Why Courts Should Beware Creationism's Secular Disguise," was coauthored by me and Thumb reader Colin McRoberts; several other PT contributors (particularly Glenn Branch) provided helpful comments. Unfortunately it's not on-line, but folks with Westlaw can read it at 15 Kan. J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 15 (2005).

Much of the article has already been pre-empted by the decision in the Kitzmiller case. But section IV of the article directly challenges Francis Beckwith's theory that the government may not choose to favor nature-based theories over supernatural theories. McRoberts and I contend that the First Amendment does not require this kind of neutrality, and moreover that "[s]upernatural explanations...are like ipse dixit arguments, which are not useful and cannot provide a basis for predictions. By contrast, a science that avoids such thinking and seeks to explain natural phenomena in natural terms is the only science capable of giving us the tools to predict future phenomena, or to understand that phenomena in anything other than self-referential terms. Science's commitment to methodological naturalism is not a priori, but is a chosen path, based on the observed differences between the two epistemological approaches." Id. at 41. I think this issue (also the subject of Jay Wexler's recent article) will be of increasing importance in coming years.

Thanks so much to Colin McRoberts for pushing me to write on the subject.

Update on the Michigan Bill

Or bills, in this case. It turns out that there are now two bills in the state legislature - HB 5606, sponsored by Rep. Palmer, which contains the “arguments for and against” language that will inevitably open the door to ID; and a Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Kuipers, that doesn’t yet have a bill designation and which doesn’t contain such language. 5606 has passed the House and has been referred to the Senate Education Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Kuipers. Kuipers doesn’t have to bring that bill up for a vote if he doesn’t want to, and at the moment it appears that he is going to focus on passing his own version of the bill.

All of this leaves things quite unsettled for the moment. The ID language could be added to the Kuipers bill by amendment, or in a post-approval joint conference to reconcile the two bills should it go that far. Kuipers is very conservative himself and is pro-ID, but he appears to want to keep this bill clear of such language so that it has the broadest appeal possible. Whether he can do that remains to be seen.

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

Ed Note: This update comes from a member of Alabama Citizens for Science. It concerns SB45/HB106, the “Academic Freedom Act”, which intends to give any teacher at any level the “freedom” to corrupt science education for any reason. The 2006 version drops the obvious anti-evolution language of its failed predecessors.

As I explained in my last post, the SC Board of Education met today to vote on the “critically analyze” (read: teach erroneous ID arguments) language that the Educational Oversight Committee wanted added. The BOE voted down the measure by a margin of 10-6 or 11-6, depending on whether or not you count the Chairman, whose vote apparently doesn’t count in the official tally (but being the cool guy he is, he wanted to make it clear where he stood).

Here’s the article from the AP: S.C. Schools Won’t ‘Analyze’ Evolution.

From what I hear, there were some excellent speakers who spoke out against the EOC proposal. They deserve major credit for this. Also, here’s a list of who voted for and against the proposal:

Voted to reject the EOC proposal: Woodall, Tindal, Burch, DuBard, Forrester, Mitchell, Pye, Sumter, Simpson, V. Wilson.

Voted support the EOC proposal: Curtis, Maguire, McKinny, Seckinger, Shoopman, R. Wilson.

If you are from SC, feel free to drop a letter of thanks to those board members who voted against the proposal. It’s important that they know they have support. And if you must send a missive to one of those who voted in favor of the proposal, please note that a) it won’t do you any good, and b) if you are anything other than super-polite, they will complain that they’re being persecuted. (Fair’s allies in the EOC have already made a habit of doing this.)

Rep. Bob Walker kicked things off this morning by presenting a petition in favor of the “critically analyze” language signed by 67 of 123 General Assembly members, and warned angrily that he’s going to take this in front of the legislature. Walker is probably the biggest ally of Sen. Mike Fair (who I hear appeared “discernibly turgid” after hearing the vote tally) in trying to get the pro-ID language added to the curriculum standards. Walker previously sent a letter (pdf) to the BOE explaining, among other things, that it was “unanimous” that the evidence for evolution had been fabricated.

While I suspect that a significant portion of those legislators who signed that petition didn’t know what they were signing, one way or another this is going to head to the State House floor. The Discovery Institute is going to have a lot of fun trying to keep 67 table-pounders from spilling the beans and admitting that this is all about the Bible and Jesus. Walker has already done that himself. Careful what you wish for guys.

The anti-evolution crusade in South Carolina, led by the Discovery Institute, continues unabated. There is not much new to report – the Educational Oversight Committee (EOC) has voted to reject, yet again, the curriculum standards that don’t include the pro-ID “critical analysis” language. But the EOC has no power to change the standards. Only the Board of Education, which meets today, can do that. So it gets kicked back to them, and they’ll have to submit another round of standards for EOC approval. Round and round we go.

But the rhetoric and nonsense keep heating up. Sunday’s Charleston Post and Courier carried a front page article which starts out as follows:

In January, state Sen. Mike Fair desperately needed a pair of speakers to challenge the theory of evolution.

The Greenville Republican and Education Oversight Committee member lost the two South Carolina university professors he had lined up for a debate with state science educators after one of his speakers began receiving job threats for agreeing to participate.

The topic of the debate was the proposed injection of language favoring “critical analysis” of evolutionary theory into guidelines or standards used for sophomore biology lessons.

So he turned to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, for help.

The article goes on to describe the Discovery Institute and its shenanigans – it’s a pretty good article actually. Among other things, we get to learn that South Carolina is now considered a “main focus” of the Discovery Institute, as if we didn’t have enough problems, and that U.S. Senator Jim DeMint’s office was being less than truthful when it said that DeMint had “little familiarity” with the Discovery Institute. (The fact that he gave the opening speech at a DI-sponsored event kind of gave it away). But it’s that peculiar allegation by Mike Fair, reprinted without skepticism, that I want to talk about.

Fair’s claim that there were two SC professors who had to back out because one of them received job threats has the virtue, like ID itself, of being impossible to verify or refute. The fact of the matter is, Fair brought this up well after he had his anti-evolution speakers appear in front of the Academic Standards and Assessments Subcommittee of the EOC (see here and here for background). Those speakers were Richard von Sternberg and Rebecca Keller, who were suggested to Fair by the Discovery Institute. Fair took some amount of heat due to his use of out-of-state personae to represent the anti-evolution cause, while the two pro-science speakers who the EOC lined-up (Karen Stratton and Mary Lang Edwards) were both in-state. But Fair didn’t see fit to mention until a subsequent meeting that he had originally picked two in-state professors who apparently backed out at the last minute – this being, according to Fair’s sob story, because one or both of them received job threats. This is very strange, because Fair steadfastly refused to say who his picks were – not even the other EOC members knew – until it was revealed at the last hour that they would be von Sternberg and Keller. Whoever these two SC professors that supposedly backed-out were, no one knew their identities then, and no one knows their identities now. How could either one of them received job threats when they remained anonymous? Okay, so color me skeptical. Fair’s story doesn’t add up. But I happen to know for a fact that there are people whose jobs have been threatened over this. And it isn’t Fair or his allies. It’s hard working college professors whose only crime is standing up to Fair and the Discovery Institute.

Last month Kentucky’s creationist governor, Ernie Fletcher (BS Engineering, MD), responded to a resolution by the Kentucky Academy of Science opposing the teaching of “intelligent design” creationism. A reader has supplied me with the text of the letter.

I won’t spoil the surprise with an analysis. Feel free to do your own. Heck, try to find as many indexed claims as you can.

Look below the fold to find out what a winner they got in Kentucky.

A while back I put up a couple of posts about an invasive gall wasp that’s threatening a species of tree unique to Hawaii.

In the first of those posts, I made a few predictions, based on my understanding of ecology and evolution, on how researchers might be able to control the gall wasp infestation:

Read More (at The Questionable Authority):

A parent recently contacted Colorado Citizens for Science, saying that his fourth grader at a public school had brought home a DVD promoting intelligent-design creationism as an alternative to evolution. CCFS advised the parent to contact the teacher before approaching the administration, and also recommended that he read the relevant resources on the Website of the National Center for Science Education and bone up on Judge Jones’s decision in Kitzmiller.

Additionally, a CCFS Board member described her own, similar experience, as well as forwarded to the parent her correspodence with her child’s teacher. The Board member’s case was not resolved successfully until she approached the school board and, ultimately, threatened to file a lawsuit. CCFS has posted its reply to the parent and also the CCFS Board member’s correspondence with the teacher at this URL.

We do not yet know how the parent’s case will come out.

A nice long writeup on Eric Rothschild, one of the lead attorneys for the Plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller case, has just come out in the Pennsylvania Gazette, the UPenn alumni magazine. The cover article is entitled “Intelligent Demise” and focuses on Rothschild’s dissection of ID arguments during the trial. Rothschild seems to come off slightly better than fellow UPenn alum Michael Behe…

A second article examines the role a UPenn commission played in debunking spiritualism in the 19th century.

Dan Ely’s colleagues take down his Kansas testimony


Dr. Dan Ely of the University of Akron testified at last year’s Kansas Creationism hearings. Ely represented himself as knowledgeable about the issues, and supported the Kansas minority report that gutted the teaching of evolutionary biology in Kansas schools.

Ely was also a member of the writing team that produced the ID creationist model lesson plan for Ohio, and testified before the Ohio State Board of Education on a number of occasions. He was also touted as an expert by several board members, including Deborah Owens Fink who first introduced a “two model” approach (evolution and ID) to the Ohio Board of Education in 2000.

Now Ely’s colleagues at the University of Akron have written an open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education taking down Ely’s qualifications, his representations of his conversations with them, and his conclusions. Pat Hayes at Red State Rabble has the story here and here.

One of the money quotes from the Akron biologists’ letter:

It is clear from these statements about his own research that Dr. Ely knows literally nothing about the evolutionary processes that he claims to be competent enough to criticize, which is understandable in that he is a physiologist with no graduate-level training in evolutionary biology whatsoever.


Addendum A correspondent points out that Ely’s behavior is of a piece with the ID movement’s general practice of having “experts” who attest to material well outside their area of professional competence. If one looks at the “experts” who testified at the Kansas hearings, not one evolutionary biologist or paleontologist was in the list of supporters of the creationist Minority Support.

4:02 p.m., March 2, 2006–Elliott Sober, Hans Reichenbach Professor and William F. Vilas Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, will deliver UD’s spring David Norton Memorial Lecture, “What’s Wrong with Intelligent Design Theory?” at 7 p.m., Monday, March 6, in 125 Clayton Hall. The lecture is free and open to the public.


How to Disprove Evolution?


Some years ago, a creationist challenged me, “Burt, how would you go about disproving evolution? It’s non-falsifiable and, by definition, cannot be science.”

Challenged me it did - I was unable to think of a good answer. At least, I was unable until I consulted with the brainiacs in Kansas Citizens for Science. The answer, like just about any answer when considering involving evolution, is to look at the past and examine evolution when it was back fighting for its life.

We’ll discuss this limited aspect of the history of evolution, along with why it’s important, on flip side…

It seems that Discovery Institute’s John West’s breeches got all tied up in a knot following last week’s New York Times article by Kenneth Chang exposing the signatories DI’s list of “scientists” harboring doubts about “Darwinism” as largely unqualified to express any well-grounded scientific judgment on evolutionary theory, and mostly religiously motivated. Alas, in his hatchet piece on Chang’s reporting, which stoops to insinuating journalistic malpractice before retreating into some mellifluous statement of appreciation of Chang’s openness, West ends up confirming the NYT’s piece key factual points.

Did you know that there really is a scientific controversy over evolution? If you didn’t, it’s because you haven’t been reading the internets. Just do a Google search and you’ll see “Intelligent Design” crop up all over the place, proof positive that there really is a controversy.

You can learn about this and other astounding bits of wisdom from SC Educational Oversight Committee member (and disposable products magnate) Karen Iacovelli, on my new blog. Incidentally, Iacovelli is an odd choice for EOC appointee, given that she doesn’t think that public education should even exist.

The Origin of the Nucleus


One of the new ScienceBloggers, Alex Palazzo, has an article about the origin of the nucleus on his blog, The Daily Transcript. Check it out!

How women evolved blond hair to win cavemen’s hearts

Academic researchers have discovered that women in northern Europe evolved with light hair and blue eyes at the end of the Ice Age to stand out from the crowd and lure men away from the far more common brunette.

First, I’ll note that I’ve not read the paper this article is based on, nor is it my intent to critique it. It may be great, it may be terrible. They may have a point, they may not. [Edited to add: you can find a post here on the actual paper for those interested]. In this case, I’m concerned with the write-up, ‘cause it’s one of my pet peeves.

“…women in N. Europe evolved with light hair…to lure men away from brunettes.” Couple this with the headline, and can’t you just see these primitive Europeans, standing around in their animal skin clothing and discussing the issue?

(Continued at Aetiology)

The University of Kentucky held its debate on ID, and Colin Wier, a law student there, has written a report on it from his notes. I have taken the liberty of correcting typos (he wrote this during the presentations) and posting it below the fold. Many thanks to Colin for this hard work.

[Oops, did I say Kansas? Sorry, this isn’t Kansas any more…]

[Note: everything below this is Colin’s report]

The Stanford Daily, Stanford University’s daily student newspaper, has been publishing several Letters to the Editor in the last week regarding evolution and Intelligent Design, apparently in response to a Feb. 17th editorial (“Intelligent debate of intelligent design”) encouraging the open discussion of evolution, skepticism towards evolution, Intelligent Design, and religiously-influenced science.

On Feb. 21st, Stanford Sophmore, ID supporter, and History major Tristan Abbey applauded the editorial and additionally attempted to dispel what he considered to be 3 myths about ID (“The myths surrounding intelligent design”). Those myths were: 1) That criticism of “neo-Darwinism” is equivalent to promoting ID 2) That creationism is the same as ID 3) That ID advocates advocate mandating the teaching of ID in high school biology classes

Abbey concludes:

Sadly, neo-Darwinists do argue with that by stereotyping critics of evolutionary theory as religious zealots, by reducing the debate to the simplistic but familiar terms of science vs. faith, and by persecuting researchers like the Smithsonian’s Rick Sternberg for keeping an open mind. Pernicious caricatures notwithstanding, the signatories to the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism now stand at over 500 scientists, including several who earned their doctorates from Stanford. As science advances, why has this number continued to grow?

Abbey’s letter is the 2nd on the page. Additionally, Casey Luskin blogged Abbey’s letter, making sure to juxtapose the words “Stanford” and “ID” in the title.

On Feb. 22nd, Biology graduate student Jai Ranganathan wrote a rebuttal to the editorial (“No room for intelligent design”). After concisely critiquing some of ID’s classic examples, he concludes:

Should there be a greater role for religious influences within the public square? There is certainly plenty of room for discussion on this issue, and reasonable people can disagree. But let’s have an honest debate and not attempt to muddy the water with unscientific ideas like intelligent design.

The following day, Feb. 23rd, Stanford Geophysics professor Norman Sleep attacked the science of ID (“Intelligent design must meet evidentiary standards”) with this choice quote from Galileo:

“Surely, God could have caused birds to fly with their bones made of solid gold, with their veins full of quicksilver, with their flesh heavier than lead and with their wings exceedingly small. He did not, and that ought to show something.” It is only in order to shield your ignorance that you put the Lord at every turn to the refuge of a miracle.”

Lastly, I responded to Tristan Abbey’s letter on Feb. 28th (“Intelligent design fails as a science”). Those interested can follow the link. However, since I’ve copied everyone else’s conclusion, here’s mine:

ID should be rejected as science because it utterly fails as a science. The religious foundations of ID may help explain why its proponents, many of whom have advanced degrees, continue to advocate its teaching, despite its complete failure to gain any acceptance within the mainstream scientific community. It is entirely possible that a religiously-based theory of origins could be scientific; but ID isn’t, regardless of its inspiration. The sooner people realize that accepting evolution doesn’t require the abandonment of faith, the sooner we can put this sad episode behind us.

Please note: the Daily Stanford website seems to load really slowly, so be patient.

New CSICOP Column


Update (March 2, 2006): I owe an apology to readers of this entry for an error I made in its initial version. I originally presented two quotes, one of which I attributed to Henry Morris, the other to William Dembski. In reality both quotes were due to Morris. The point I was making was that both ID and scientific creationism assert that the question of the age of the Earth is independent of the scientific question of whether evolution is an adequate explanation for life’s complexity. But in writing this entry I carelssly misread what I had originally written in my essay. I am sorry for the error.

My new column for CSICOP’S Creation Watch web site is now available. This time we take a closer look at the question of whether there is any important difference between ID and scientific creationism. Turns out there’s even less of a difference than you think!

Ruse on Kitzmiller v. Dover


There is a short list of people whose written opinions on Kitzmiller v. Dover I am particularly interested in seeing. One of them was Michael Ruse, whose review of the decision was just published in this month’s issue of Science & Spirit magazine.

Michael Ruse (2005). “Two Cheers for Darwin.” Science & Spirit, March/April 2006.

Ruse was the philosopher of science in the famous 1981 McLean v. Arkansas case where “creation science” was declared unconstitutional. As we went through the trial in Kitzmiller, the historical resonances between the two cases became more and more pronounced – and that was before Robert Gentry pitched up in Harrisburg in the last week of the trial.

Ruse approves in particular of the philosophy of science in Judge Jones’s opinion. Reading between the lines I think he is giving Rob Pennock a big compliment for threading the needle between being too “demarcationist” (which is what Ruse was accused of, unfairly in my view, by another philosopher, Larry Laudan, in an article which ID/creationists have quoted hundreds of times since – see also Ruse’s reply), while also not falling into the “anything goes” trap that many vehement anti-demarcationists end up with.

Aaaannnnddd…it’s live!


Tangled Bank #48 is up at Aetiology. Check out the latest edition of the best science writing in the blogosphere.

Kansas USD 383: Keith B Miller


To Dr. Shannon and members of the USD 383 School Board:

I am here to express my strong support for the resolution being put forward by well over 100 science faculty and staff at Kansas State University. I speak as a geologist., educator, parent and committed Christian. I have also been closely involved in the Kansas science standards issue since 1999.

Kansas USD 383: 38 Nobel laureates



USD 383 Board of Education Manhattan-Ogden Public School District Robinson Education Center 203 1 Poyntz Avenue Manhattan, KS 66502

Dear Board Members:

In September 2005 I and 38 other Nobel Laureates wrote the Kansas State Board of Education in defense of science and education. We urged the Board to reject proposed science standards that were to include alternatives to evolution as explanations for the origin of species. I was disappointed that the Board voted to adopt the proposed standards on November 8,2005. As we stated then, evolution is not a theory, as the term “theory of evolution” seems to indicate, but rather is based upon compelling scientific evidence and is the foundation of much of modern biology. The standards adopted by the Board redefined science in a way that I believe will harm the education of students in Kansas as they try to understand the world in which they live and compete with the world’s workforce.

I applaud the current effort by the science faculty of the Kansas State University not to allow science to be redefined, at least in Manhattan. I urge you to support their resolution not to support the new Kansas Science Standards. In supporting the KSU faculty you would show great leadership and ensure that the students in your district will continue to have a strong science education. You also would be joining the large number of scientific and educational organizations that support rigorous science education.

H. Robert Horvitz Ph.D. Professor of Biology, MIT 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Provided by Keith Miller

HAYS, KS – In response to the Kansas State Board of Education, the Board of Directors of the Kansas Association of Teachers of Science has released a position statement on the State Board of Education’s Science Standards 2005. In a cover letter for the response, KATS Board of Directors President David Pollock said, “The Kansas Association of Teachers of Science (KATS) is the largest science teacher association in the state of Kansas. The 18 elected board members represent elementary through college teachers. The following is the official position of KATS that was passed at the regularly scheduled board meeting January 21,2006.”

Pollock is a teacher at Hays High School, Hays USD 489.

We, the undersigned faculty and professional staff of Kansas State University science departments, express our continued commitment to maintaining the highest quality science education for the children of USD 383 and Kansas. We are also concerned about the negative impact the Science Standards recently passed by the Kansas State Board of Education will have on our children, our community, and Kansas State University. We are especially concerned about the continued high quality of science teaching, and the continuing recruitment efforts to bring talented workers and educators to our community. We ask that you adopt the following resolution:

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