February 11, 2007 - February 17, 2007 Archives

In 2006, the United States Supreme Court issued a little-noticed decision called Garcetti v. Ceballos, 126 S. Ct. 1951 (2006), that has some interesting—and disturbing—implications for how public employees can express themselves on the job. A January 24th decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, called Mayer v. Monroe County Community Sch. Corp., has now applied the Ceballos doctrine to the case of a government school teacher who alleged that she was unconstitutionally fired for telling students how she felt about the war in Iraq. And this raises the issue of whether the doctrine might be applied in cases involving government teachers who express to their students their own views with regard to evolution and creationism.

Lately, the Discovery Institute has stuck its neck out in response to the popularity of showings of Randy Olson's movie, Flock of Dodos, which I reviewed a while back. They slapped together some lame critiques packaged on the web as Hoax of Dodos (a clunker of a name; it's especially ironic since the film tries to portray the Institute as good at PR), which mainly seem to be driven by the sloppy delusions of that poor excuse for a developmental biologist, Jonathan Wells. In the past week, I've also put up my responses to the Wells deceptions—as a developmental biologist myself, I get a little cranky when a creationist clown abuses my discipline.

In case you are completely baffled by this whole episode, here's a shorter summary.

Prof. Steve Steve at AAAS 2007

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Prof. Steve Steve and his trusty sidekick Nick Matzke plan to be at the NCSE booth at the AAAS Annual Meeting at the Hilton in downtown San Francisco from 10-5, Saturday, February 17. I know many PT people and ScienceBloggers are at the meeting, so stop by and see us! (transport info)

Prof. Steve Steve, and perhaps Nick, will also be in attendance on Sunday and Monday. It looks like Saturday and Sunday have free Exhibit Hall admission on account of 2007 Family Science Days.

As with every AAAS meeting, the true goal is to get invited to the Science Journalists’ Party, which I hope is Saturday night. They always throw quite a bash, although it will be hard to trump the molten chocolate fountain from the DC meeting a few years back.

Behe vs Sea Squirts

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Recent research has thrown an interesting spanner into one of the key, but slightly obscure claims Behe makes about “irreducible complex” (IC) systems. In Behe’s discussion of the mammalian clotting system (Darwin’s Black Box [DBB], 1996, page 86, 1st edition) he claims:

“…none of the cascade proteins are used for anything other than the formation of a blood clot”.

This is a fundamental claim with important implications. If components of an allegedly IC system have other functions, this would violate his “well matched parts” condition for an IC system. Also, if these enzymes have other functions, they could be coopted from those functions to form a clotting system. If the clotting enzyme thrombin’s only function was to cut fibrinogen to make fibrin, then, if a mutation produced a thrombin-like enzyme in the absence of fibrin, natural selection would be unlikely to preserve this enzyme (but see below). On the other hand, if a general protease (an enzyme that cuts up lots of different proteins) were to gain the ability to break down fibrinogen, then its other functions would keep it preserved until a fibrinogen-like substrate appeared.

Contrary to Behe’s statement, many of the clotting proteins have other roles. Several of these non-clotting functions were known when Behe wrote DBB [1,2 and Note 1]. These roles, in wound healing and in tissue remodelling and embryogenesis, give us useful clues to their evolution. They also demolish Behe’s claims about IC.

Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Shermer debated William Dembski yesterday in Bridgewater, VA on the subject of evolution vs. ID. Since Bridegwater is a short drive away from my digs in Harrisonburg, I decided to go check it out.

The debate was held at Bridgewater College, a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, as part of their Anna B. Mow Lecture Series. According to the small program handed out at the door, “The Anna Beahm Mow Symposium honors Dr. Mow as a teacher who walked with her students, a scholar whose life was a pursuit of knowledge, an author who conversed with her readers and a Christian whose love of her Lord enabled her to be accepting of all children of God.”

Jack Cashill, the Worldnutdaily’s resident conspiracy loon, has a column up recounting the Sternberg saga in all its distorted and highly exaggerated glory. He’s swallowed every claim in the Souder report uncritically, and even added a few of his own distortions to the story.

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

This is pretty cool, a webpage full of videos about evolution and creationism with various scientists and philosophers that should be familiar to readers of this blog. They include Ken Miller, Genie Scott, Barbara Forrest and Kevin Padian.

Note from Kansas

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I received this note from a Kansan who asked that it be posted on PT. She said Jack Krebs (head of Kansas Citizens for Science) might be too modest (or maybe he is trying to return to normal life!).

On the day after Charles Darwins’ birthday, and the day before Valentines Day, the Kansas State Board of Education delivered its much-anticipated reversal of the anti-science standards adopted in November 2005.

Although this outcome was expected after the August 2006 primary election resulted in a guaranteed moderate majority on the board, conservatives fought to the end to amend the standards to include their non-natural definition of science and their bogus evolution criticisms. Each motion to amend was defeated. Ultraconservative Ken Willard of Hutchinson requested that the board go into executive session just before the standards discussion. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, “He asked whether the state can endorse an idea that nature can be solely explained by material causes and whether the state can suppress information critical of evolution – two problems conservatives say the new standards would create, though opponents argue otherwise.” Willard never explained why no state includes supernatural explanations in its science standards, because he doesn’t like the answer: such topics are outside the domain of science.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Big Ideas–one of my favorite podcasts–presents Marydianne Andrade’s lecture on sexual dimorphism and mating strategies. You can listen online here.

Tangled Bank #73

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The Tangled Bank

Whether you think the current holiday is Valentine's Day, a belated Darwin Day, or Quirky Alone day, the latest edition of the Tangled Bank is for you.

I attended a screening of Flock of Dodos last night at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The film was shown in the IMAX theater – of course it was not filmed in the IMAX format, but anyone who’s been in an IMAX theater knows how many people will fit into one. And the place was packed. The filmmaker Randy Olson (and his mother, Muffy Moose, who was featured prominently in the film) were on hand to introduce the movie and to answer questions afterwards, which was a special treat.

Before I go into gripes about the film, I want to say that on the whole it was excellent and definitely worth seeing. It was above all entertaining. It made for a decent if somewhat incomplete exposé of the ID movement. And a number of nonsense arguments that the IDists promulgate were knocked down, in many cases through the documentary technique of just letting the silliness speak for itself. The recurring theme of Mt. Rushmore was the sterling example of this.

Nevertheless, in spite of the film’s strengths, my job as semi-obsessed-ID-watcher was to notice those parts of the movie where I think Olson missed the mark. Below I’m going to go into a lot of detail about this, and it could take awhile, so you might want to buckle in. This isn’t because I think Olson got a lot of things wrong – there are really only a few issues here – it’s that I think these are key points that are important to movie’s theme and the broader issue of defending science. They are therefore worth expounding upon at length.

Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography will be published in the United States in March, but was released in the U.K. last June. It’s a tidy little 151 pages (plus notes and index) that would make a very nice Darwin-day gift for your evolution-loving Valentine!

The book is one title in the series “Books that Changed The World” (for some reason, in the U.K., they only “shook” the world) that also includes Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, Francis Wheen on Marx’s Das Kapital, Simon Blackburn on Plato’s Republic, Bruce Lawrence on the Koran, Karen Armstrong on The Bible, Hew Strachan on Clausewitz’s On War, Alberto Manguel on The Iliad and The Odyssey, and P.J. O’Rourke on Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Browne is Darwin’s leading biographer, and she manages somehow to encompass not only the development of Darwin’s thought, but its implications to the present—including the modern synthesis and creationist opposition—all in a book that can be easily read in a day. In some places, Browne’s writing seems inelegantly simplistic, but all told, the only real objection to this book is that it’s not possible to present Darwin’s great ideas in their full color in such a short space. Still, this book comes as close as possible. Darwin comes across as an exceedingly pleasant man, the very image of what a scientist should be: careful, precise, polite, honest, and brave enough to stand for unpopular ideas when the evidence supports them. Happy birthday, Charles Darwin, and thank you Janet Browne.

There are a number of Darwin Day events going on in the Palmetto State, both today and throughout the week. You can go to the South Carolinians for Science Education website for a complete run-down of the events and links to the individual flyers. Events will be held at Furman, the College of Charleston, and Clemson. Kenneth Miller will also be speaking in Clemson next Monday.

My letter to New Scientist

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In the 16 December issue of New Scientist, there was an editorial (“It’s still about Religion”, subscription required) and an article “The God Lab” (free access), which investigated the Biologic Institute, an institute that was set up with money from the Discovery Institute supposedly to do laboratory work into Intelligent Design. Not surprisingly, the Biologic Institute does not come out well. On the 13th of January, Douglas Axe, Brendan Dixon and Ann Gauger wrote a letter (subscription required) addressing the editorial, saying they are convinced that Intelligent Design will lead to good science, but they won’t talk until their research is finished. I wrote a letter myself in response, but it didn’t make it into either the print or web letters. For the record, here is my unpublished letter.

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