February 2010 Archives

Freshwater: Only a partial recusal

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Update: Full text of Thompson’s letter below the fold.

In an update to my recent post on Board members recusing themselves from participating in the Board’s decision-making on the Freshwater matter I said that Steve Thompson, Freshwater supporter and former (apparently) fund-raiser, had decided to recuse himself in the same manner as Paula Barone. That now appears to be false. In a Feb 25 story in the Mt. Vernon News we learned that

Board member Steve Thompson also recused himself from discussing and voting on existing litigation.

He did not recuse himself from the administrative proceedings relating to Freshwater’s contract termination.

In other words, he’s planning to participate in the Board’s action on the outcome of the administrative hearing. That puts him squarely back in the conflict of interest soup and puts the Board at considerable litigation risk.

Hat tip to phred on mvohio.net.

Creationism really is a science stopper

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We often argue that saying that “God did it” is a science stopper. That claim is typically countered by pointing to numerous examples of scientists who were (Newton) or are (Kenneth Miller) Christians (though as we know, Newton was a peculiar sort of Christian, even for his time).

The Disco ‘Tute, of course, doesn’t think that positing an Intelligent Designer is a science-stopper. Their ‘solution,’ embodied in the Wedge strategy, is to redefine science to include God an unnamed intelligent designer with inscrutable goals and skills as an “explanation.”

One variety of Christian “science,” however, is clearly willing to stop science in its tracks, and Todd C. Wood, faculty member at Bryan College, has provided a stark illustration of that. While Wood has shocked his creationist peers on occasion, for example for saying that

Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well. (All bolding original)

However, Wood has clear boundaries. Writing on his blog more recently Wood says

That’s why I don’t care about the origin of life (and why I’ll probably never finish reading Meyer’s book). I already know where life came from. I open the book of Genesis, and the Bible tells me exactly where life came from. Speculating on how it might have happened in a naturalistic scenario seems like a waste of time to me. Just like it would seem like a waste of time to an atheist to study the logistics of Noah’s Ark.

Can’t get any clearer than that.

Freshwater: One Board Member recuses herself, another should

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Update: Thompson has done the right thing and elected to recuse himself in the same manner as Barone.

Paula Barone, a newly elected member of the Mt. Vernon Board of Education, has decided to recuse herself from participating in executive sessions and voting on the Freshwater matter when it comes before the Board again. Her decision is based on advice from the Ohio School Boards Association, the Ohio Ethics Commission, and David Millstone, the Board’s attorney in the matter. While all three advised her that there was no legal conflict of interest associated with her participation in decisions on Freshwater, nevertheless her participation could give Freshwater’s legal team a pretext for further litigation. She therefore is recusing herself–at this time, anyway–from participation in the decision-making process.

Comparing Barone’s situation with that of Steve Thompson, the other newly elected member of the Board, it’s apparent that Thompson is in a substantially worse conflict of interest situation than Barone, and is doubly obliged to recuse himself.

More below the fold.

Freshwater: The paranoia grows

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A new story is making the rounds now, to the effect that R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, has been in contact with the anonymous source of the black bag in the parking lot. That source, it is said, is willing to testify in the hearing but not in public because of fears for his/her safety. So Hamilton has asked the referee to hear testimony from that person with the hearing closed to spectators and press and the referee is considering whether to do so.

As I noted earlier, this has gone past strange and is well into bizarro territory. Does the anonymous source fear that the Evil Atheist Conspiracy is going to take revenge on him/her? Are there mobs of evolutionists with torches and pitchforks waiting outside the walls of the hearing room? Not hardly, not in this county. The one slight justification I can see is if the anonymous source is a school employee and fears being fired for removing the black bag and its contents from the school without authorization (assuming it actually came from the school and not Freshwater’s garage, which is not established). But as far as I know the hearing referee has no power to grant immunity from prosecution for theft, so taking the testimony in private won’t solve that problem for him/her.

Bear in mind that this is the same R. Kelly Hamilton who brought pressure to make the names of the Dennis family public after a federal court had granted them anonymity to protect them, particularly Zachary, from reprisals. And note that the Dennis family finally felt it necessary to move away from this community because their children were being subjected to harassment from other students and school staff – teachers and at least one coach. So why is Hamilton so hot to protect an adult’s anonymity now?

After the B.S. story Don Matolyak offered to justify taking an armed escort with him to retrieve the black bag while deciding he didn’t need the cops, I am of the opinion that this is just more of the smokescreen and is intended to amp up the drama casting John Freshwater as the poor persecuted Christian man in heathen Knox County, Ohio. It’s designed solely to bring more pressure on the Board of Education to settle on Freshwater’s terms. But Hamilton, Matolyak, and Freshwater appear to be becoming so enamored of their delusional fantasies of persecution that I fear for their ever more tenuous grasp on reality.

Sarracenia purpurea

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Photograph by Susan Bello.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Sarracenia purpurea – pitcher plant blossom, Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia.

Rotting fish and taphonomy: what fossilizes?

A common bleat from creationists is “Where are the millions of transitional fossils Darwin said there should be?” Martin Brazeau has an excellent post on taphonomy at The Lancelet reporting a paper in which folks let poor innocent critters rot in order to ascertain which anatomical features are likely to be preserved and which are likely to be lost before fossilization, and the implications for interpreting fossils of ‘soft’ tissues for phylogenetics. Comment there, please.

by Joe Felsenstein, http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

The Discovery Institute Press has published a book by Granville Sewell, a mathematician at the University of Texas at El Paso. Under the title of In The Beginning And Other Essays on Intelligent Design, it apparently consists of previous writings of Sewell, some in revised versions. I hasten to say that I do not have a copy of the book, and have not read it. However Sewell makes it clear that its basic arguments can also be found online in earlier versions of these essays. The one that interests me is his argument that evolution contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which will be found online here, here, here, and here.

Now the statement that evolution can’t have occurred because it contradicts the Second Law is one of the hoariest old creationist myths. When you hear it you know you are dealing either with someone who does not understand science, or else someone who does understand science but is actively, and dishonestly, trying to get you not to understand science. It is easily answered, and has been, many times: in a closed system entropy does increase, but the biosphere is not a closed system — it is utterly dependent on inflows of energy, mostly from the sun, and the entropy increase from the outflow of energy from the sun far exceeds the decrease of entropy by reproduction and by evolution.

Freshwater: A podcast

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Me on the A Pair of Continents podcast talking about the Freshwater affair. The interview starts around 17:00 of Episode 39. Fat Steve and Dany are fun and interesting folks and I recommend their other podcasts, especially the two featuring PZ Myers (“Easy PZ” to Dany; episode 36) and Richard Wiseman (Episode 20). Well, actually, they’re the only two I’ve listened to so far and I hope to get to their interviews with John Horgan and Skepchick Rebecca Watson soon. But again, highly recommended. After all, they interviewed me! :)

Opuntia galapageia

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Opuntia galapageia – cactus tree, Galápagos Islands.

An agony in eight fits (Updated 2/18)

Wesley Elsberry is beginning a series of indeterminate length dissecting Disco Dancer Casey Luskin’s forthcoming 8-part series on “Judge Jones’s Misguided NCSE-Scripted Kitzmiller Ruling and the Origin of New Functional Genetic Information”. Wesley’s first sentence is a classic:

Casey Luskin has decided to treat us to an agony in eight fits, wherein he will whine mightily concerning “information”. I don’t know how many of those I’ll be taking note of, but I might as well have a look at the first one.

Go read it all and comment there, please.

Update: Mark Chu-Carroll has also stepped on Casey.

Barr Bashes ID

Writing in the journal First Things, University of Delaware physicist Stephen Barr offers some frank words for the ID movement:

It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.

Goodness! And that’s just the first paragraph.

It is hard not to like an essay that begins like that, and I certainly agree with his general assessment of the ID movement. This criticism is all the more significant for appearing in a religious venue by a writer who is himself religious. (Barr is the author of the book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith). Still, I found much to criticize in some of the specific arguments Barr offers. The details can be found in this post over at EvolutionBlog. Comments can be left there.

Evolution Weekend – 2010

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Sorry to be so late, but February 12 is Charles Darwin’s birthday, and February 12-14 is Evolution Weekend. From the Evolution Weekend home page:

Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic - to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letters themselves, which have now been signed by more than 12,000 members of the clergy in the United States, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy.

If you live in a largish metropolitan area and know of any events that PT readers might want to attend, please announce them in the Comments.

Freshwater: The police report

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I’ve received a copy of the police report on the incident described in Dumpster diving for docs. It is a “found property” report, not a criminal complaint. The report contains a 3 page typed account of the incident by Don Matolyak, Freshwater’s pastor.

The main message of the circulating story I described in my earlier post–the mysterious appearance of new evidence from the district via a cloak and dagger route–is confirmed by Matolyak’s statement, but a number of details differ. I’ll list them below the fold, based on Matolyak’s statement in the police report.

Sand dune

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Sand dune, showing wind ripples. Sahara desert, Morocco.

Freshwater: Dumpster diving for docs?

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A strange story is circulating in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. According to the story, John Freshwater, currently the subject of an administrative hearing on his termination as a middle school science teacher, received a call from an unnamed person on Thursday, Feb 4. The caller purportedly told Freshwater that the school had discarded some documents in a dumpster at the high school and that the documents contained information that would exonerate him. Sometime during the night of the 4th or morning of the 5th, Freshwater, his lawyer R. Kelly Hamilton, and his pastor Don Matolyak are said to have gone through one or more school dumpsters, removing some documents and taking them to Matolyak’s church, Trinity Assembly of God, to go through them.

The story goes on to say that the three then called the Mt. Vernon Police Department which responded to the church and took custody of the documents. Two sources I am not permitted to name have told a trusted friend (and one source told me) that a police report on the incident has been written but is not yet publicly available because it has not been approved by a supervisor. When asked directly about it, the police department would not comment.

This strikes me as unbelievable in at least one important respect. My wife has taught in the Mt. Vernon City School District for more than 30 years and I am fairly familiar with their records disposal policies. With new privacy regulations covering a wide range of personnel matters from evaluations to medical history to student records, sensitive documents are not casually discarded in dumpsters, they’re shredded. The schools are equipped with shredders and they’re used. I simply cannot believe that an administrator would be stupid enough to casually toss unshredded documents relevant to Freshwater’s case into a dumpster. If in fact Freshwater, Hamilton, and Matolyak had possession of documents from the school that bear on Freshwater’s case, I strongly doubt that they came from a dumpster. I hope the cops are investigating other potential sources.

A couple of speculative implications of the story are also circulating. One is that Freshwater and his attorney are pushing for a criminal investigation of the school district for withholding or destroying evidence important to the administrative hearing and/or the two federal suits. Another speculation is that this is yet another delaying tactic by Freshwater and his advisers that is designed to increase pressure on the Board of Education to settle with Freshwater on his terms. A third, held mainly by local conspiracy theorists, is that the story is true and the district was in fact concealing evidence. Of course, those are not mutually exclusive. I’ve so far found no evidence indicating whether those or any other hypothesis has any support.

If true, this story pushes the Freshwater saga past merely strange into bizarre territory. I say again that there is no official confirmation of the story, but even the fact that it is circulating and is being taken seriously speaks to the mood of this badly divided community. That’s the true tragedy of this whole affair.

That is the title of an article to be published in The International Journal of Cardiology, a presumably reputable journal published by Elsevier. Avijit Roy, the editor of the pro-science website Mukto-Mona, published in both Bengali and English, takes Elsevier to task on Talk Reason here.

PrimordialSoupPPR.jpg

Science Daily reports today that

For 80 years it has been accepted that early life began in a ‘primordial soup’ of organic molecules before evolving out of the oceans millions of years later. Today the ‘soup’ theory has been over turned in a pioneering paper in BioEssays which claims it was the Earth’s chemical energy, from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, which kick-started early life.

“Textbooks have it that life arose from organic soup and that the first cells grew by fermenting these organics to generate energy in the form of ATP. We provide a new perspective on why that old and familiar view won’t work at all,” said team leader Dr Nick lane from University College London. “We present the alternative that life arose from gases (H2, CO2, N2, and H2S) and that the energy for first life came from harnessing geochemical gradients created by mother Earth at a special kind of deep-sea hydrothermal vent – one that is riddled with tiny interconnected compartments or pores.”

The soup theory was proposed in 1929 when J.B.S Haldane published his influential essay on the origin of life in which he argued that UV radiation provided the energy to convert methane, ammonia and water into the first organic compounds in the oceans of the early earth. However critics of the soup theory point out that there is no sustained driving force to make anything react; and without an energy source, life as we know it can’t exist. …

Discuss.

Reflection by a rippled surface

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Photograph by Dave Rintoul.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Late March sunset reflected in a channel of the Platte River near Gibbon, Nebraska.

Meandering channels with sandbars such as this one are critical habitat for sandhill cranes and whooping cranes migrating north; the birds roost in the river overnight, which protects them from predators such as coyotes.

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