March 2009 Archives

Brief Book Review: “Darwin Slept Here”


I know this is brief, but I’m pressed for time and I liked the book and wanted to say something about it here.

Eric Simons, a graduate of UC Berkeley’s graduate program in environmental and science writing, recently published Darwin Slept Here. In contrast to the plethora of books on Darwin marking the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species, which tend to focus on the development of the science and the mature man, Simons’ book asked ‘What was it like for Charles Darwin, a young guy just out of college, to visit all those places that were so foreign to him and the culture in which he had been raised?’ Could a 21st century Californian, not much older than Darwin’s age at the time, recapture some of the feelings Darwin recorded himself as having in his Beagle Diary if he trekked up as far as he could toward the headwaters of the Rio Santa Cruz, as Darwin, Fitzroy, and some crewmen of the Beagle did? Would Tierra del Fuego elicit the same feelings of revulsion and fascination? Is the inland of Patagonia really that barren? And was that really Charles Darwin, aboard the Beagle called “Philosopher,” traveling overland on horseback for weeks with a party of gauchos, sleeping rough every night with a saddle for a pillow, meeting a revolutionary general and talking his way through hostile lines to get into town? Who is that cowboy anyway?

And did anyone in those places Darwin visited know that he was there?

Christopher Hitchens has a typically well-written article on the efforts of the Texas Board of Education to teach creation myths in science classes. Here’s the punchline:

[W]e can surely demand that the principle of “strengths and weaknesses” will be applied evenly. If any church in Texas receives a tax exemption, or if any religious institution is the beneficiary of any subvention from the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, we must be assured that it will devote a portion of its time to laying bare the “strengths and weaknesses” of the religious world view, and also to teaching the works of Voltaire, David Hume, Benedict de Spinoza, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. This is America. Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a thousand schools of thought contend. We may one day have cause to be grateful to the Texas Board of Education for lighting a candle that cannot be put out.

Ardea herodias


Ardea herodias — Great Blue Heron, Sarah P. Duke Gardens


Ardea herodias — Great Blue Heron, Sarah P. Duke Gardens

As head of the Texas Board of Education, creationist dentist, Don McLeroy has probably more influence over American textbooks than any other individual. His mission is to force textbooks to lie to students:

See Texas Freedom Network for more information.

Freshwater Hearing: Whose Arm? Some Contradictions.


In my brief post yesterday (just below this post) I described Ben Neilson’s testimony to the effect that the injury shown in newspaper photos was not the mark he saw on Zachary Dennis’ arm when Freshwater used the Tesla coil on both students (in different classes). Today that testimony was contradicted, as an investigator described a very different account given by Ben Neilson to to the investigators in the course of an interview with Ben in the spring of 2008.

In this post I will juxtapose Ben Neilson’s testimony from yesterday, Mar 26, and the cross examination of Julia Herlevi, an employee of HR OnCall, which did the investigation for the Board of Education. Ms. Herlevi was present at the interview of Ben Neilson and took notes during the interview.

Later, sometime over the weekend, I’ll post a description of the rest of the testimony on Thursday and Friday.

Freshwater Day 16: Whose Arm?


There will be no extended report tonight. I have other commitments. I’ll post full reports of today’s and tomorrow’s testimony sometime over the weekend.

However, one major claim was made in testimony today. Ben Nielson, a classmate of Zachary Dennis, testified that the arm he saw in a newspaper picture which was identified as Zachary’s arm showing the injury, was not Zachary’s arm. Nielson testified that he saw a mark on Zachary’s arm shortly after the incident in December 2007, and the mark was significantly smaller than that in the picture and was on the inside of the arm rather than on the outside as the picture apparently shows.

Ben testified that when he saw the photograph in the newspaper, he exclaimed “That’s not Zach’s arm.” His father corroborated the account.

Neither Ben nor his father Mark, who also testified briefly, could remember when they saw the newspaper picture or which newspaper it was in. Zachary Dennis’ identity was not made public until October 4, 2008, on the first day of Freshwater’s termination hearing, while photographs of Zach’s arm were published considerably earlier without identification.

(If anyone in the comments can identify the date of the earliest news photo of Zachary’s arm, specifically identified as Zachary Dennis’ arm, in the Mount Vernon News or Columbus Dispatch I’d appreciate it.)

A Texas legislator has introduced a bill that would exempt any private institution of higher learning from having to acquire a certificate to award a masters degree from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, provided that the institution required the students to complete “substantive course work” and did not accept federal or state funds.

According to a recent press report, the not-so-hidden agenda behind the bill is to certify graduates of the Institute for Creation Research Graduate School to apply for jobs as teachers in the Texas public school system. The ICR is a young-earth-creationist organization that purports to offer a graduate degree in science education with minors in general science, astro/geophysics, biology, and geology. (Steve Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science argued a year ago that they should be certified to offer a masters in theology, but not in science.)

The ICR 2 years ago moved its headquarters to Texas, where its programs are not accredited. They had been accredited in California by an accrediting agency for Christian schools, one of the founders of which was also a founder of ICR. That accrediting agency, however, is not recognized in Texas. For details, see an article by Glenn Branch in the Reports of the National Center for Science Education.

Lest I appear to pussyfoot, let me state that the upshot is that the bill, if passed, would allow wholly unqualified graduates of a diploma mill to teach science in the public school system in Texas.

Acknowledgment. Thanks to SEA News (Scientists and Engineers for America) for providing the initial reference.

According to Texas Freedom Network’s live blog, the proposal to include “strengths and weaknesses” language to the Texas education standards has failed with a 7-7 vote.

An alternative proposal to include the language “including discussing what is not fully understood so as to encourage critical thinking by the student” was also rejected 7-7. The rejection of this alternative is noteworthy because the creationists on the board and the current culture war strategy of the Discovery Institute have argued that students should learn “more” about evolution to develop critical thinking skills. The alternative language fit directly in that rationalization, but in a scientifically rigorous way.

And that was the problem. During the debate over the alternative several creationist board members directly opposed it because it did not include teaching “weaknesses” to the students, which they have now confirmed is a code word for the lies creationists invent about science and the natural world.

The process is not over. There are still more proposals being floated and voted on, many of them still anti-science and anti-education.


Success was short-lived. Several amendments that encourage bad teachers to include pseudo-science and lies in the classroom made it into the final standards. See the comments for links.

I love Walter ReMine

Some of you might be familiar with the work of Walter ReMine. He’s been around the fringes of the online creation-evolution thing for quite a while now. His typical schtick involves the relentless self-promotion of his self-published book The Biotic Message, which he claims represents a revolutionary new origins theory of some sort.

It’s been a while since ReMine was last on my radar screen, but he’s posted a couple of items over at Uncommon Descent recently. These are advertised as the first two parts of a multiple-part essay of unspecified length. He promises that this essay will introduce readers to “Message Theory” - a term which he uses often, always with the capital letters, but has yet to actually define. Instead, he devoted all of his first post and half the second to a discussion of the importance of testability, and why it’s such a good thing that Message Theory is actually testable. (He does not, of course, explain how to test it in either post.) The remaining half-post is devoted to an explanation for why it’s not possible for him to publish his idea in the form of scientific papers - apparently, it’s too wide-ranging and comprehensive to fit in anything less than a book.

Freshwater Day 15: A Teacher Secretly Tapes Administrators


After a last minute cancellation of the session scheduled for March 20, the hearing on John Freshwater’s termination as a middle school science teacher in the Mt. Vernon, Ohio, school district resumed today. For links to previous posts on the hearing click here.

Testimony today came from Jeff Maley, former Superintendent of the Mt. Vernon City Schools, and Lori Miller, currently a middle school math teacher and formerly a middle school science teacher. Both were called by R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, who is presenting Freshwater’s case to not be terminated. The Board’s case was presented in earlier sessions of the hearing.

Below is a letter from over 50 scientific societies urging the Texas Board of Education to promote the modern science education curriculum developed by its own committees of educational and scientific experts. Right now the board is considering replacing the curriculum developed by its experts with one developed by anti-science culture warriors. The quack in charge of the process recently advocated lying to Texas students about evolution and has endorsed a book that “calls Christians who accept evolution ‘morons’ and parents that teach their children evolution ‘monsters.’”

As Texas is one of the two largest textbook markets, any decision they make to promote quackery is likely to adversely affect other states and the capacity of our nation to be scientifically competitive in the future.

A Message to the Texas State Board of Education

The undersigned scientific and educational societies call on the Texas State Board of Education to support accurate science education for all students by adopting the science standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS) as recommended to you by the scientists and educators on your writing committees.

Evolution is the foundation of modern biology, and is also crucial in fields as diverse as agriculture, computer science, engineering, geology, and medicine. We oppose any efforts to undermine the teaching of biological evolution and related topics in the earth and space sciences, whether by misrepresenting those subjects, or by inaccurately and misleadingly describing them as controversial and in need of special scrutiny.

At its January 2009 meeting, the Texas Board of Education rightly rejected attempts to add language to the TEKS about “strengths and weaknesses” – used in past efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution in Texas. We urge the Board to stand firm in rejecting any such attempts to compromise the teaching of evolution.

At its January 2009 meeting, the Board also adopted a series of amendments to the TEKS that misrepresent biological evolution and related topics in the earth and space sciences. We urge the Board to heed the advice of the scientific community and the experienced scientists and educators who drafted the TEKS: reject these and any other amendments which single out evolution for scrutiny beyond that applied to other scientific theories.

By adopting the TEKS crafted by your expert writing committees, the Board will serve the best educational interests of students in Texas’s public schools.

Creationists, whether YECs or IDers, just can’t help falling over themselves in their eagerness to tar the theory of evolution (and Darwin) as racist. This is nonsense for any number of historical reasons. Racism obviously had existed long before Darwin. Darwin, though he sometimes expressed statements that are racist by modern standards, was remarkably non-racist by the standards of his age and treated people of other races without prejudice, as well as being passionately opposed to slavery (he was far less racist than most Christians and creationists of the time). It’s true that evolution was pressed into service to provide justification for racism, but the same could be said of Christianity. Such arguments were invalid and are not a logical consequence of evolution. Nor is there any truth to the smears that evolution caused the Holocaust.

But the strangest thing about creationists trying to link evolution and racism is that creationists generally accept some of the theory of evolution. Not all of it obviously, but the major creationist organizations all accept the idea of natural selection and evolution within ‘kinds’ (a non-scientific creationist term that, in practice, is defined to be whatever amount of evolution creationists are willing to accept). Answers in Genesis even enthusiastically affirms that it has no problem with the concept of natural selection.

Creationists don’t accept that evolutionary change can accumulate indefinitely and that humans could have evolved from apes or earlier primitive animals, but that’s not the scale of change involved in the evolution of all living humans from their most recent common ancestors. Human racial differences are minor and easily explained by natural selection. To creationists, humans are a ‘kind’, and human races evolved within that kind. So if the theory of evolution is racist, that makes creationism equally racist.

Tyrannosaurus rex


Tyrannosaurus rex — American Museum of Natural History

nmtoon.jpg New Mexico was one of the states considering anti-evolution legislation based on the Discovery Institute’s “Model” bill (at the Institute’s “Academic Freedom” site) Like bills in Iowa and elsewhere around the country, this legislation has foundered, and literally died without being heard in committee during this year’s 60-day session which just ended ( noon on Saturday, March 21st).

According to a report in the Boulder Daily Camera, vandals tore an eye-wash station from the wall Thursday night and flooded the Ramaley biology building at the University of Colorado. The building was damaged, but initial reports suggest that the scientific work of the faculty was unharmed. There is apparently no indication that the biology building was specifically targeted, nor that the vandalism is related to recent threats directed against University of Colorado biologists.

Casey Luskin is once again hard at work in the Discovery Institute quote mines. In his latest effort, he tries to make the case that a recent review article by Kevin Padian and the Panda’s Thumb’s own Nick Matzke contains “veiled threats” designed to intimidate cdesign proponentsists. Casey dives into the quote mines in the first paragraph of the post:

It’s always amusing how evolutionists continually proclaim, and then re-proclaim, the apparent demise of intelligent design (ID) (i.e. ‘no really, this time ID actually is dead!’!). We’re pretty used to that, but then it gets a little creepy when they exude what appears to be an unhealthy pleasure in ID’s (purported) demise. Such was recently the exact case when National Center for Science Education (NCSE) president Kevin Padian and former NCSE spokesman Nick Matzke, in a January issue of Biochemical Journal, published a “review article” claiming that the “case for ID” has “collapsed,” gleefully asserting that “no one with scientific or philosophical integrity is going to take [Discovery Institute or ID] seriously in future.”

Whenever someone from the Discovery Institute quotes a scientist, it’s a good idea to go back to the original source. That’s particularly true in cases like this, where the quoted material consists of several sentence fragments. Unsurprisingly, when we check the original source, we find that the quoted passages occur several paragraphs apart.

Help Isis help undergrads


Dr. Isis has a sweet announcement today. In conjunction with the American Physiological Society, she’s funding an award for undergraduate researchers. She’s donating her monthly Scienceblogs payment to the cause, and APS is providing matching funds, up to $500. Help her out by clicking over to check out her blog; her post describing the award is here for more information.

Weasles on Parade

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It is now 62 hours since William Dembski posted that the Evolutionary Informatics lab was going to try and reproduce Dawkins Weasel Program according to how it was actually written, as opposed to their fantasy version. In that time I’ve resurrected an elderly program, and several readers have made their own weasels from scratch. Commenter Anders has even made a Python version that puts “freely mutating” and “locking versions” head to head with great graphs. (Update: Wes Elsberry did a head to head comparison last year, see here for his comparison [scroll down], it differs from my implementation but the basic message is the same).

I’ve gone back and done a head to head comparison myself between a program with no “locking” (all letters in any given string have a chance to be mutated) and one with “locking” (where the matching letters are preserved against mutation). Trying to implement “locking” al la Dembski proved too hard. You have to keep indices of the letter locations and keep updating them. It is such a pain in the bottom to try and do this that I cannot imagine Dawkins even wanting to try and program a “Locking” implementation in GBASIC. Remember, Dawkins weasel was a quick and dirty program bashed out in a short time. To implement “locking” I just kept a copy of the parent string unmutated (after all, in the real world not every offspring has mutations in genes of interest).

So what happened?

I blogged the other day about a North Carolina judge’s decision in a custody case. The case is being portrayed in the press as a religious conflict, in which the judge based his decision to deprive a mother of custody in part on the fact that she was teaching the children creationism. I suggested in my earlier post that the story sounded suspicious to me, largely because all we were given in the reports were quotes from the mother herself. We now have a written decision from the judge and it is clear that the original news story was, indeed, deeply misleading.



My sister’s brother’s daughter’s father’s sister informed me that we now have a site dedicated to our family photos. If you want to see what some of the basal branches of my family have been up to, head over to Pandaganda.

Dembski Weasels Out

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Over at uncommon descent William Dembski is musing over Richard Dawkins Weasel program. Why you may ask? Way back in prehistory (the 1980’s) Dawkins wrote a little BASIC program (in Apple BASIC of all things) to demonstrate the difference between random mutation and random mutation with selection, which many people were having trouble grasping. Now, this wasn’t a simulation of natural selection, and Dawkins was very careful to point this out.

But as a demonstration of selection versus simple random mutation, with the string “methinks it is a weasel” being selected in a matter of minutes, when simple random mutation would take longer than the age of the Universe, it was pretty stunning. As a result, creationists have been having conniption fits over this little program for decades. Such is its power, the Issac Newton of Information Theory, William Dembski, spent a not inconsiderable portion of his time attacking this toy program. In particular, he claimed that after every successful mutation, the successful mutation was locked into place, and couldn’t be reversed. But he was wrong, and it seems he just can’t admit it.

Amblyrhynchus cristatus


Amblyrhynchus cristatus – Marine iguana, Galapagos Islands.

This news story has been raising some eyebrows lately: it appears that a North Carolina judge has ordered three children of a divorcing couple to be sent to public school in part because of the father’s concern that the children are being taught creationism at home. Prof. Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment expert, has some comments here. Personally, I’m very skeptical about the news report. Legal reporting is often extremely misleading, and it’s always best to be skeptical. In this case, the story only quotes the mother (who, of course, lost the case and is the one complaining) and not the judge. The mother claims that the judge based his ruling in part on this issue, but we don’t have the judge’s own words before us.

Putting that aside, this is not an easy question to call. Of course, the prospect of a judge basing a custody decision solely on this issue is very troubling–there are far more relevant factors in a custody case than whether a child is receiving adequate science instruction. And a parent has a right to direct the religious upbringing of a child, including the right to teach a child ludicrous religious dogma instead of science. That’s a sad thing, but people often think other people’s exercise of freedom is a waste. Certainly history includes many atrocious cases in which atheist parents have lost their children because judges thought it was “better for the child” to be taught religion.

Still, the father also has a right to educate his children, and if he thinks the children are not being instructed adequately, he has a legitimate complaint. There are good reasons to be concerned about the quality of education in home schooling environments (although there are certainly many very high quality home schoolers). In a case like this, it is probably best to ensure that although the mother is free to teach her children her religious beliefs, the father is also free to teach real science to kids if he chooses. But, again, we don’t know all the facts, or even the other side of the story.

I think everyone can at least agree that child custody cases are extremely complicated matters–which cannot be accurately described in a brief news story, and obviously should not be decided on the basis of evolution or creationism education alone–and that except in cases of actual abuse, minor children should not be taken from parents because of the religious instruction that parents are giving their kids. The problem is, when does religious instruction become abuse? That line can often be blurry–but if it’s just a dispute over evolution and creationism, it’s clearly not abuse.

By Hector Avalos, Ames, Iowa

Count this as another loss for the Discovery Institute in Iowa—right behind its failed efforts to portray intelligent design as legitimate research in Iowa universities. The “Evolution Academic Freedom Act,” based on the model language promoted by the Discovery Institute, never even made it out of the relevant subcommittee in the Iowa legislature. March 13 was the deadline for any further action.

The bill was introduced by Rod Roberts, a Republican legislator, in early February. By mid-February, the faculty at Iowa institutions of higher learning launched a petition that eventually gathered some 240 signatories from about 20 colleges, universities, and research institutions in Iowa.

Footprints through time


A recent paper (Bennett et al. 2009) announced the discovery of 1.5 million year old fossilized footprints from Ileret, Kenya, almost certainly belonging to Homo erectus (see also this commentary article by Ann Gibbons). Homo erectus was already known from fossils such as the Turkana Boy to be very similar to modern humans below the neck, and completely adapted to bipedal locomotion. So it was no suprise when the footprint analysis showed that the owners of the Ileret footprints had a fully modern foot shape and were pushing off their big toes and shifting their weight exactly as modern humans do.

Answers in Genesis, of course, was delighted to report on this, claiming that it confirmed their belief that Homo erectus was a modern human (never mind the more primitive features of pelvis, shoulder and skull found in Homo erectus). So did the Institute for Creation Research. But AIG and ICR carefully avoided mentioning information from the paper that did not fit with their agenda.

Oxford University’s previous Charles Simonyi Professor for Public Understanding of Science, Richard Dawkins, visited Michigan State University in East Lansing on March 2nd and 3rd. Prof. Dawkins gave a lecture on “The Purpose of Purpose” to a sold-out crowd at the Wharton Center on the evening of the 2nd, and held an hour-and-a-half question and answer session at the Fairchild Theater on campus in the morning of the 3rd.

(Original post at the Austringer)

“Listen to the fool’s reproach! It is a kingly title!”–William Blake

Dr. Egnor has posted response to my comments about his blog posts. He basically makes three points: first, he accuses me of misrepresenting him by calling him a creationist; second, he claims that it is constitutional for creationists to teach religion in government schools; third, he claims I am part of a conspiracy to preach atheism to schoolkids…or something. Let’s see how much of this holds up.

Sarracenia leucophylla


Sarracenia leucophylla — Crimson Pitcher Plant, Duke Gardens

This week I was invited out to Oklahoma to speak in the University of Oklahoma’s Darwin 2009 speaker series. It was quite a trip – I got to meet the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, and breakfast with Richard Dawkins himself. The evolution issue is still hot in Oklahoma, and my visit coincided with a general cultural fracas in the state over evolution, creationism/ID, and what attention these issues should receive in public schools and in universities. I’ll attempt to give a brief snapshot of how things currently look in one of the reddest of the red states.

I’ve been building this simulator off and on for a few months. It is called Red Lynx and is written completely in client-side javascript using jQuery, jQuery UI, and jQuery SVG plugin.

My goal is to host several of these javascript toys and teaching tools on PT and allow our readers to experiment with them. I’ll be back later to explain the model, but I want to give y’all the chance to play with it and try to deduce the model beforehand. (Of course, you can look at the code, but that’s cheating.)

This simulation is inspired by a few Java applets written by Kent Holsinger at the University of Connecticut. Dan Earle came through big time by porting the binomial random number generator from GSL to javascript.

Internet Explorer does not have native support for SVG graphics. You can install Adobe SVG viewer or the Renesis Player to use the simulator.

Update: I’ve made some changes based on feed back that I’ve received and some new ideas I had.

Dr. Egnor has half-heartedly responded to my post (without mentioning it) in a post in which he rightly condemns the attempt by Oklahoma Representative Todd Thomsen to express legislative disapproval of the University of Oklahoma’s invitation to Richard Dawkins. (Egnor is wrong to describe this as censorship–it would be dumb and embarrassing, but not censorship, for the legislature to express this opinion–but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his heart’s in the right place.) But, unsurprisingly, he goes on to employ sloppy language to mask what is either ignorance or an intentional effort of distortion regarding the Constitutional issues I mentioned in my previous post.

With the possible exception of Casey Luskin, no Discovery Institute fellow seems more eager to embarrass himself in public than Michael Egnor. Dr. Egnor’s recent “open letter” to the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology attacked the Society for deciding not to hold its 2011 conference in New Orleans to protest that state’s enactment of legislation designed to promote the teaching of creationism in government-sponsored schools. Egnor objected that the Society is acting unethically because “most Americans are creationists,” and for the Society to take a stand against creationism is a “demand for censorship.” Worse yet, their decision is a slap in the face of American taxpayers whose tax money funds so much scientific research. It’s hypocritical, he says, for scientists to take government funding while opposing the teaching of “creationism” (his word) in government schools. PZ Myers responded to this at his blog, and now Egnor has posted a reaction at the DI’s blog.

There are two points here that really must be made.

Coelogyne barbata


Coelogyne barbata — orchid, Southeast Asia. Orchid courtesy of Lloyd Gelman, past president, Boulder Orchid Society.

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