July 2009 Archives

Project Steve #300 awarded Medal of Freedom


NCSE’s Project Steve, now with 1,097 signers, includes an array of notable scientists including the two eligible living Nobel Prize winners, Steven Chu (U.S. Secretary of Energy) and Steven Weinberg. Another notable signer is Stephen Hawking, who holds the Lucasian Professorship in Mathematics at Cambridge University, the same professorship Isaac Newton held. Yesterday President Obama announced that Hawking will be among 16 people to be awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, our highest civilian honor, joining (among others) Ted Kennedy, Desmond Tutu, and Joe Medicine Crow, a tribal historian, author, and WWII veteran who won the Bronze Star. We congratulate all the awardees, with a special congratulations to Hawking, Project Steve #300.

Over at Uncommon Descent Dr. Dembski has replied to commentators who pointed out he misrepresented climate science, especially his claim that in the 70’s

The scare back then was global cooling!

In response, Dr. Dembski quotes an article which proves he did misrepresent climate science. If that’s not enough, he goes on to make stuff up.

Mr. Jimmy and Me


Earlier this month I attended a dinner party with President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.

Prof. Steve Steve and Pres. Jimmy Carter

Pres. Jimmy Carter meets Prof. Steve Steve

Dear Dr. Dembski, in your recent post on Uncommon Descent “H.L. Mecken on the urge to save humanity”, you quote approvingly from an article at the Investors Business Daily.

A new scientific paper [McLean, de Freitas, and Carter, 2009] says that man has had little or nothing to do with global temperature variations.…..Their research, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, indicates that nature, not man, has been the dominant force in climate change in the late 20th century.

As a mathematician Dr. Dembski, you will certainly be able to effortlessly analyse the McLean, de Freitas, and Carter, 2009 paper (the full paper can be found here).

Your challenge, Dr. Dembski, is to show exactly how this paper supports the statements in the Investor Business Daily article. Please pay particular attention to the smoothing and bandpass filtering analysis in your explanation. Oh, and you may also like to explain why the lead author John McLean states:

The paper by McLean et al (JGR, 2009) does not analyse trends in mean global temperature (MGT); rather, it examines the extent to which ENSO accounts for variation in MGT.

and what his statement means for the Investors Business Daily piece. You may also wish to consult these articles at Open Mind, Only in it for the Gold and More Grumbine Science, which do an in-depth analysis of the paper.

Given your interest in the role of science in policy decisions, this challenge is a valuable opportunity for you to use your expertise to show how this paper refutes many decades of climate research.

A religious movement in Nigeria aims to establish a government, which I can only describe as a paradise for the Discovery Institute.

If their name is uncertain, however, their mission appears clear enough: to overthrow the Nigerian state, impose an extreme interpretation of Islamic law and abolish what they term “Western-style education”. …

In an interview with the BBC, the group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, said such education “spoils the belief in one god”.

“There are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam,” he said.

“Like rain. We believe it is a creation of god rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain.

“Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it. We also reject the theory of Darwinism.”

Sounds familiar, dunnit?

This month’s PLoS Biology contains a book review by Axel Meyer of H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the origins of German Darwinism: a study in translation and transformation by Sander Gliboff.

Haeckel, who was the most influential don of German zoology for several decades, probably read Darwin’s Origin in German during his PhD work in Jena, since his command of English was not particularly good. The main reason why all of this is of greater, even political, interest beyond issues in the history of science, is that Ernst Haeckel is widely seen—although this is disputed among historians of science—to be in an unholy intellectual line from Darwin to social Darwinism and eugenics in the early twentieth century, eventually leading to fascism in Nazi Germany. Creationist and intelligent-design advocates worldwide tirelessly perpetuate this purported but largely unsubstantiated connection between Darwin, Haeckel, and Hitler. Such efforts are particularly and unnecessarily divisive in this “Darwin year,” when we celebrate not only the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin, but also Darwin’s 200th birthday. Furthermore, they do not do justice to Haeckel’s understanding of Darwinian evolution by natural selection with all its unpredictability, but, more importantly, seem to aim to further undermine the acceptance of evolution by an often still surprisingly skeptical lay audience.

Read the full review for free.

Ergates spiculatus


Photograph by Paul Burnett.


Ergates spiculatus – Pine sawyer beetle, San Jose, California. See also BugGuide.

Fellows of the Discovery Institute seem to be over represented in fringe groups, Paul Nelson is a Young Earth Creationist, the Godfather of Intelligent Design Phillip Johnson and DI fellow Jonathan C. Wells have signed on to AIDS denial and Guillermo Gonzalez has signed on to a climate change denialist list.

Topically, given the debate about science communication that has been happening in the wake of of “Unscientific America”, in a recent article William Dembski dives into the whole Global Warming Denialism thing [1].

Ironically, at that same time in the 1970s, scientists were concerned not that the earth was warming but that it was cooling. The scare back then was global cooling!

Unfortunately for Dr. Dembski, this is a complete myth. There was no global cooling scare in the 70’s. While this is an indication of the level of fact checking involved in the article, more important is the subtext in this article, which makes more clear than ever the real concern of the Intelligent Design movement.

And this is the naked, unadulterated envy (and fear) of the power of scientists.

Freshwater Update: A last-minute postponement


The hearing on the termination of employment of Mt. Vernon Middle School science teacher John Freshwater was scheduled to resume today, July 24. However, after an hour-long conference this morning among the attorneys and referee, the hearing did not resume and will not resume until sometime on or after September 10, 2009. It seems that the Ohio Revised Code provides that in such a hearing, the subject of the hearing, in this case Freshwater, can elect to not have hearing days scheduled when the schools are not in session, and through his attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, that choice was made today. In interviews after the aborted hearing Hamilton made it clear that it was his decision as Freshwater’s attorney, not Freshwater’s.

Hamilton said he intends to file a writ of mandamus with the Ohio Supreme Court to compel the Board to issue subpoenas for two Board of Education members, Jody Goetzman and Ian Watson, to testify. He had previously requested that they be subpoenaed, but the Board of Education (the issuing body for subpoenas for the hearing) quashed the subpoenas and the Knox County Court of Common Pleas declined to enforce the (non-existent because they were quashed) subpoenas. See here for that story.

A writ of mandamus is a high priority item for the State Supreme Court – it goes to the head of the queue on the Court’s docket – but the Court is on summer recess now so it’s hard to know when the Court will rule on Hamilton’s motion, which is not yet filed.

More below the fold.

Photography Contest


This post announces the (first annual? Who knows?) Panda’s Thumb photography contest. The winner will receive an autographed copy of

Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), by Matt Young and Paul Strode.

The rules of the contest are simple:

Mr. Mystery

Prof. Steve Steve had an exciting weekend; you’ll never guess whom he had dinner with.


Prof. Steve Steve and Mr. Mystery

Hyalophora cecropia


Photograph by Alexander Clair. Dye transfer from Kodachrome* original.


Hyalophora cecropia – Cecropia moth, Rochester, N.Y., ca. 1950. For more background, see below the fold.

*Kodachrome has just been discontinued after approximately 75 years.

Remembering Apollo 11


The 1960s were heady days in more senses than kids today might suppose. It wasn’t all Haight-Ashbury and pot and hippies with flowers in their hair. I spent a couple of years in the military in the early 1960s down at the Cape launching early versions of Polaris missiles into the Atlantic missile range, or sometimes into the Banana River if the range safety officer saw fit to push the destruct button. (As a side benefit I got to participate in the Cuban blockade in 1962 aboard a U.S. Navy ship.) Those were the Project Mercury years of the manned space program, and one would occasionally see one or another of the original seven astronauts around the Cape or in Cocoa Beach (anyone remember the Cape Colony Inn?), and we’d marvel at how they’d stuff themselves into a tiny Mercury capsule atop an Atlas rocket and blast away into near-earth space. Watching those launches in 1962 and 1963 I never thought then that I’d work on their successor systems and watch the fruits of that work take men to the moon.

As most readers of science blogs already know, the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter has just returned photos of five of the six Apollo landing sites on the moon, including one (Apollo 14) where the foot trails made by astronauts are visible! And those are preliminary images. The LRO team promises 2x or 3x better resolution when the orbiter is in its final orbit.

One of those sites is special to me. In the mid and late 1960s I was a member of a group in Honeywell’s Development and Evaluation Laboratory (later in the Systems & Research Center) that was charged with stress testing components of the Apollo Command Module control system. We tortured reaction jet controllers, abused thrust vector servo assemblies, and kicked around translation and rotation hand controls for months. We soaked them in vacuum chambers, cycling the temperature up and down on a 12-hours on, 12 hours off schedule, subjected them to over-voltages and under-voltages, shook them on vibration tables, and generally tried to see how bad we could treat them before they failed. Out of all that testing came the final versions that were installed in Apollo Command Modules and flew in them, including the version that flew in Apollo 11.

On the day that the Eagle – the Lunar Excursion Module associated with the Apollo 11 flight – landed at Tranquility Base, my wife and I had gone to the Minneapolis Humane Society to adopt our first dog, Beau. We got home in time to watch the television broadcast and see the blurry video of Neil Armstrong stepping off the LEM ladder. (R.I.P. Walter Cronkite, who broadcast the landing that day in 1969 and who died yesterday.) It was an amazing feeling – a combination of elation and relief – to know that the landing had been successful. All the people who worked on the manned space flight projects over the years after John F. Kennedy committed us to going to the moon within a decade were proud to have contributed to the mission. I sure was that day, and I still am. I left the Apollo program after our part of Apollo 11’s development was finished to work on other prototype spacecraft and aircraft systems, but knowing stuff I worked on took humans to the moon is something I’ll be proud of until I die.

It is by now no secret that Francis Collins, the president’s nominee for director of the National Institutes of Health, is an evangelical Christian [Science, 325 (5938), 250-251 (17 July 2009)]. Collins was until recently the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and I have no doubt that he will be a good administrator. Nor do I think his religious views should have in any way affected his appointment; the people I would worry about are those who could not compartmentalize religion from science as effectively as Collins.

Collins’s religious views may nevertheless be of some interest. The primary argument in his book The Language of God is what he calls the Moral Law (his capitalization). In Collins’s view, morality could not have evolved; therefore God exists. Specifically, Collins argues that morality can be found only among humans. The moral code transcends culture, he says, and therefore must be inborn. He notes that humans are often altruistic, by which he means truly altruistic in the sense of never expecting return on their altruistic investment. He briefly notes the arguments of sociobiologists to the effect that altruism can provide indirect benefit to the altruist and uses infanticide among monkeys to demonstrate that monkeys are not altruistic. He observes that worker ants are altruistic (maybe that should have been in quotation marks) because they have the same genes as the queen but dismisses the possibility that altruism among humans could have a genetic basis.

Now Collins may be right, but telling us that monkeys commit infanticide and neglecting to tell us that humans also commit infanticide is cherry-picking data in the worst way.

The Disco ‘Tute Dance continues


Wes Elsberry has a new post up on the latest Disco ‘Tute contribution to the obfuscation of science:

If you are wondering whether this new expository source will sustain the Discovery Institute’s longstanding reputation for publishing spin, please read the following excerpts and be comforted.

Go. Read. Wes is kinder than I am: I’d have said “for publishing crap.” But that’s just me. :)

Geococcyx californianus


Photograph by David Young


Geococcyx californianus – Greater Roadrunner, Carlsbad, New Mexico, with lunch.

Blogging Batholiths


I am currently in British Columbia, Canada, participating in the Batholiths Onland experiment.

Nominally, this large group effort involving over 50 scientists and grad students is for “a seismic refraction and wide-angle reflection survey across the Coast Mountains batholith of British Columbia, Canada.”

This rather terse description does not really do justice to the project, which has the purpose of discovering why continental mountain ranges are often made of granite instead of basalt.

Relevance to the Panda’s Thumb? (1) Real science involves real work; when is the last time you saw a creationist actually measure something, or use a shovel? (2) Real scientists think the earth is billions of years old. You just can’t scientifically reconcile these batholiths with a 10,000-year old earth without being more than a little schizophrenic.

Comment Failures?


I updated the comment system this weekend. If you are seeing comment failures, try clearing your web cache. That should allow you to download updated javascript files. Still having problems, post them here.

Freshwater Update – Updated!


Update 7/11/09:

The situation surrounding the refusal to testify by the Mt. Vernon Board of Education members has been clarified. The Mt. Vernon News reports that according to the Common Pleas judge, the Board of Education quashed the subpoenas for testimony by Ian Watson and Jody Goetzman on the (official) ground that they have no direct knowledge of the allegations made against Freshwater and could therefore only offer hearsay testimony. Quashing the subpoenas basically takes them out of existence, so there were no subpoenas be complied with and so the judge didn’t order compliance with (now) non-existent subpoenas. (I know, I know: I tried to write a cleaner sentence, but I’m tired.) Further,

Since the matter is an administrative hearing, the judge said, the board has the legal authority to issue and quash subpoenas. He added that he has no grounds under law to overturn the board’s decision to invalidate the subpoenas in this case.

R. Kelly Hamilton apparently called the Board Members because he is trying to make the case that there is a conspiracy against Freshwater in which some teachers, administrators, Board Members, and other unnamed people have been trying to get get rid of him for years. Don Matolyak, Freshwater’s pastor, made that allegation around the time the hearing began in October 2008:

In 2003, Freshwater asked the Mount Vernon school board if he and other teachers could “critically examine” evolution in class. The school board said no.

“From that point on, John had a bull’s-eye on him,” said Don Matolyak, Freshwater’s pastor.

The board has carried out a vendetta against Freshwater because he wanted to teach alternative views to evolution, and that offended school-board members who believe in evolution, Matolyak said.

Pam Schehl’s interview with the judge also clarified another matter that’s been hovering out there:

The way the law is structured, Freshwater has the right to appeal whatever decision the board makes regarding his contract termination. If Freshwater does appeal to the court of common pleas at that time, the judge may or may not require additional testimony not presented during the administrative hearing.

So this process may well not be completed within the reign of the current monarch.


A couple of developments should be noted. First, as you may recall, R. Kelly Hamilton, John Freshwater’s attorney, subpoenaed two members of the Mt. Vernon Board of Education, Ian Watson and Jody Goetzman. They declined to testify, arguing that were they to testify they would have to recuse themselves from subsequently voting on the recommendation of the hearing referee, and that would leave the BoE short of a quorum and it would be unable to act on the recommendation. Hamilton asked the Knox County Court of Common Pleas to compel their testimony, but yesterday the judge declined to do so on the ground that he does not have jurisdiction. I don’t yet know what Hamilton will do next.

Second, Freshwater has recently amended his federal complaint (pdf) that was filed June 9, 2009, to include

213. Plaintiffs incorporate the foregoing paragraphs of this Complaint as if fully restated herein.

214. At the time of Defendants actions Plaintiffs John and Nancy Freshwater were married and continue to be married.

215. As a result of the wrongful and negligent acts of the Defendants, Plaintiffs were caused to suffer, and will continue to suffer in the future, loss of consortium, loss of society, affection, assistance, and conjugal fellowship, all to the detriment of their marital relationship.

Third, the session scheduled for tomorrow, July 10, has been postponed. The hearing is currently scheduled to resume July 24, but given the recent twitchiness of the schedule I’m not counting on it happening. Hamilton may appeal the Common Pleas court decision, and I have no idea how long that might take.

I still have those 50 pages of notes to transcribe on the two days of hearings in May. I hope to get to that one of these days real soon now. :)

More crummy science reporting


UPDATE 2:See my comment below for more on the study.

UPDATE 1: I got a copy of the paper, and on a fast first reading things are both more complicated and more subtle than they appear from the various news stories. The paper offers a model by means of which they (purport to) essentially partition the phenotypic change in the sheep population into a portion due to phenotypic plasticity in the face of environmental change and a portion due to “evolution.” “Evolution” as it is used in the news stories (and, it appears, in the paper) is construed very narrowly as an adaptive change in the genetic composition of the population due to natural selection. Somewhere Larry Moran is gnashing his teeth. :)

More later, after I read the paper a couple of times (or not, if a popgen person chimes in knowledgeably).


I posted the gist of this as a comment on Pharyngula, but in view of the recent dustups over science reporting I thought I’d promote it to a brief post here.

The comment was on PZ’s report of Ben Goldacre’s analysis of some really lousy science reporting in the Telegraph. And it’s truly crummy reporting, distorted and sensationalized. But there are also the casual errors, little misrepresentations that slip into stories almost unconsciously. For example, in the Guardian’s recent story about ‘shrinking’ sheep there’s this little jewel:

The case involves a rare herd of wild sheep on the remote Scottish island - known in Scottish Gaelic as Hirta - that are refusing to bow to conventional evolutionary pressure, which says big is best.

Evolutionary pressure says big is best? Gaaah! And the reporter has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and is the Guardian’s environment correspondent, having previously worked for Nature. Lovely.

More lying to teachers


Casey Luskin, never what you might call intellectually honest, published an article recently in the Hamline Law Review purporting to assist public school teachers in knowing what they can and cannot teach about evolution in government classrooms. The article, of course, is all centered on the basic misrepresentation in all that the Discovery Institute does: namely, the lie that “intelligent design” is a “scientific” approach or constitutes a “scientific critique” of evolution.

Waaay off topic


Never let it be said that we are pure science nerds on PT. As is the case with all group blogs, PT has a back channel communication system in which we argue, discuss, argue, debate … erm, well, we talk about stuff. sometimes in vigorous disagreement. Mostly it’s about one or another topic relevant to the stated purpose of PT, but sometimes we wander.

For some reason a recent conversation wandered into limericks (is a limerick a limerick if it’s clean?), doggerel, and similar high-brow literary entertainments. In the course of the conversation one of the PT crew composed a two-stanza poem in macaronic style, in which the lines of the poem are in different languages but the meter and rhyme scheme are preserved through the language shifts. Most such works are in just two languages, but this particular one, which I won’t publish without permission, was in three languages. Were there no other reason for being a member of the crew, seeing that kind of creation pop up in casual conversation would make it worthwhile. Just thought you’d like to know. :)

Zalophus wollebaeki


Zalophus wollebaeki – Juvenile Gal�pagos sea lion, suckling.

The marketing people at Quark Expeditions have a contest going to send a blogger on one of their Antarctic expeditions next year. They will send a blogger along simply based on votes, a straight-up popularity contest. This seems like an opportunity that I shouldn’t miss. I’m eager to compare my sartorial style with the resident penguin colonies down there, and I’m sure that dodging crabeater or Weddell seals should simply add a certain zest to the adventure for someone of my diminutive stature.

Unfortunately, there is some speciesism involved, and I’ll have to make do with using my designated Sherpa for the trip, Wesley Elsberry, as my proxy in the voting process. We’re still discussing which one of us gets smuggled along in the luggage. I’ve told him that that is what duffel bags are for. Wesley makes for a pretty good Sherpa, what with his interdisciplinary background in marine biology and computer science. He’s also handy with a camera and acoustics gear, and does some wicked blogging himself. Of course, it’s not a patch on my own set of qualifications, including the B. Amboo Chair in Creatoinformatics at the University of Ediacara, a J.D.-M.D.-quintuple Ph.D., and being a seven-time Nobel nominee. As the Izaak Walton of information theory and the Ulysses S. Grant of drinking contests, I can recognize talent for myself and exploit it. Sorry, the new word is collaboration, isn’t it? We did well working together at the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial, and I’m looking forward to some more, er, collaboration in the cold.

So, Freeze Me, Please! Voting runs through September 30th, so please pass this on. Here’s an 88x31 pixel badge you can use by copying the code below:

<a href="http://echothis.info/V0">
<img src="http://pandasthumb.org/images/pss/pss_freeze_me_badge_88x31.gif" />

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the 9th North American Paleontological Convention in Cincinnati. ’Twas a grand old time, mingling with a lot of seriously excellent scientists.

PSS at NAPC b.jpg

Besides the excellent science, a highlight was the panel I sat on. This session was held over lunch on Thursday, and the subject was “Countering Creationism”. I was joined by Panda’s Thumb contributors Richard Hoppe, Jason Rosenhouse, and Art Hunt.

PSS and panelists.jpg

Some new polling data on the lack of acceptance of evolution.

The Discovery Institute is touting a poll that they commissioned from Zogby which claims that 52% of the American public believe that “the development of life was guided by intelligent design.”

An Ipsos/Mori poll in the UK shows that only 33% of the American public thinks that “scientific evidence for evolution exists”. This compares with 51% in Britain and 8% in Egypt. While the poll considered additional countries, over at a simple prop I’ve tabulated results for Britain, the US and Eqypt (as a representative Muslim country) and made some comments on the issue of theistic evolution. Leave comments there or here (though I will probably not be reading the thread here).


About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from July 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

June 2009 is the previous archive.

August 2009 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.



Author Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.381

Site Meter