March 2012 Archives

Lauri Lebo on the Tennessee anti-evolution bill

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In view of Nick Matzke’s post on the Tennessee creationism-inspired bill just below, I don’t know how I missed this, but via The Sensuous Curmudgeon I just learned of Lauri Lebo’s detailed article on it at Scientific American. Highly recommended.

When, a week or two ago, Tennessee’s proposed antievolution law came back from the dead and suddenly looked like it had a real chance of passing, the only creationist who expressed opposition was Todd Wood of Bryan College. Yes, that’s William Jennings Bryan College, named after the famous antievolutionist of the 1920s who criss-crossed the nation promoting laws banning the teaching of evolution, and who battled Clarence Darrow in the (first but perhaps not only, if this law passes) Tennessee Monkey Trial.

Wood opposed the law on grounds that it was unnecessary – teachers already possess freedom to teach about real scientific controversies (ID/creationism are not, of course), subject of course to whatever curriculum and testing requirements there are.

Wood’s argument as stated wasn’t all that convincing, really – the law is necessary if your goal is to push creationism in public schools without getting in trouble, for instance. My gut instinct is that what was really going on was that Wood, for a long time one of the only self-critical, independent, and somewhat realistic voices within creationism, just doesn’t think that pushing ID/creationism via government power and the public schools is a good idea. It’s not even good for creationism – pushing your ideas in the public schools before they are accepted in the scientific community will instantly discredit your movement within science; it leads to heated political battles rather than academic discussion; and inevitably it has historically led to expensive and embarrassing court defeats for creationism, and tighter legal restrictions against teaching creationism.

So I bet that’s what Wood’s actual feeling was. However, he was writing to the governor of Tennessee, so perhaps framing his opposition in terms of necessity was done for that purpose.

However, I suspect that something has changed for Wood, because his posted letter to the governor has been taken down. Here’s the original link, it’s not there. So what happened? Did someone at Bryan College object to a creationist going off-message? Did someone at the Discovery Institute get worried about the influence that a Tennessee-based professional creationist opposing the law would have, and call up Bryan College or Wood himself and start harassing them? On any scenario you postulate, it’s pretty odd behavior, since Wood has long said what he thought, even when it was unpopular with other ID/creationists.

Usually I save things like this, when a creationist does something unusual and inconvenient for the movement, and it seems like it might get taken down later. But I didn’t do that in this case – so if anyone has the text, post it here (it was an open letter to the governor, after all).

Yet another Scopes Monkey Trial is on the way in Tennessee – that is, unless the governor vetoes the Discovery-Institute-inspired bill that the Tennessee Legislature just passed:

Tennessee “monkey bill” passes legislature

House Bill 368 passed the Tennessee House of Representatives on a 72-23 vote on March 26, 2012, the Nashville Tennessean (March 26, 2012) reports. The bill would encourage teachers to present the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of topics that arouse “debate and disputation” such as “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning”; it now proceeds to Governor Bill Haslam, who will have ten days to sign the bill, allow it to become law without his signature, or veto it. Haslam previously indicated that he would discuss the bill with the state board of education, telling the Nashville Tennessean (March 19, 2012), “It is a fair question what the General Assembly’s role is … That’s why we have a state board of education.”

Opposing the bill have been the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the Nashville Tennessean, the Nashville Tennessean, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, and three distinguished Tennessee scientists and members of the National Academy of Sciences who recently warned, in a column published in the Tennessean (March 25, 2012), that the legislation was “misleading, unnecessary, likely to provoke unnecessary and divisive legal proceedings, and likely to have adverse economic consequences for the state.”

That, and it sets the state up for a Kitzmiller v. Dover-like disaster as soon as some creationist teacher or school board uses the law as excuse to get the not-very-hidden creationist/ID junk in the Discovery Institute’s Explore Evolution into the public schools. Make no mistake, that’s the long-term gameplan. See background on Explore Evolution. Or see all NCSE pages on the book.

Euphorbia myrsinites

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Euphorbia myrsinites – myrtle spurge. Myrtle spurge is a noxious weed in Colorado.

Earlier this week, Jeffrey Kluger wrote an article about Coppedge v. JPL and Caltech that appeared on Time’s website. Kluger is a lawyer himself, and had a pretty tough take-away message concerning Coppedge’s apparent chances of success in the lawsuit:

Groups like the intelligent design community are not always free to pick their poster children, and it’s unfortunate for them that Coppedge is one of theirs. It’s true enough that employers and colleagues in a science-based workplace might be uncomfortable with the idea of a coworker who believes in intelligent design. But neither the Constitution nor employee-protection laws can regulate feelings – no more than they can or should regulate belief systems. They can, however, circumscribe behavior on both sides of that faith-divide. From the filings at least, JPL appears to have stayed well within those boundaries. Coppedge appears to have jumped the rails entirely.

Yes, even disinterested third parties get it now.

JPL’s brief discusses a lack of self-awareness on Coppedge’s part. The tone-deafness isn’t just Coppedge, though. It permeates the DI and the IDC community. They are so intent on instantiating their myths that they cannot seem to wrap their heads around the idea that one of their own could be in the wrong. You’d think with all those lawyers in their camp that they would be better at this than they are.

But Kluger’s conclusions are simply what one expects when someone comes to this without an ideological precommitment. Another observation made by Kluger takes us down a rabbit hole and straight to Wonderland’s mad hatter’s tea party in progress.

Far more bizarre is Coppedge’s inclusion of a three-page “screenplay” dramatizing his interactions with one of the complaining coworkers, including such dialogue as “I’m so uncomfortable with David approaching me about watching an intelligent design DVD and talking about my stance on Proposition 8.” The coworker then, in the “screenplay” version of the incident, sobs.

It is not a legal leap to suggest that none of this helps Coppedge’s case. Nor does his footnote to the scene, which concedes “Some liberties have been taken with the dialogue and action as artistic license.” Legal briefs, of course, are not typically the place for artistic anything – especially license.

The specific document in question is the “Plaintiff’s Trial Brief” from the NCSE website. The “screenplay” starts on page 4, in the section headed as “Weisenfelder”.

Unfortunately, the PDF is an image-based one and I don’t have an OCR program to hand. The screenplay is immensely entertaining, though, please give it a read. If someone transcribes it, please send it along and I’ll update this post.

Our March event will feature Dr. Clark Johnson, Principal Investigator at the Wisconsin Astrobiology Research Consortium.

Dr. Johnson will discuss the origin of life, and the evolution of life on Earth.

How do we go about such a challenge? What do we look for? What do we know so far? How does our knowledge of the evolution of life on Earth help, or hurt, our search for life on other planets such as Mars? These are some of the questions that astrobiology research is engaged in.

March 25 Science Pub 2PM, Brocach Irish Pub 7 W Main Street, Madison, WI

Streptopelia decaocto

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Streptopelia decaocto - collared dove. In my neighborhood, at least, the collared dove, an invasive species, appears to have almost completely replaced the mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) within a very few years. The call of the mourning dove used to be rare, but now we hear the call of collared dove every day.

The disappearing Disco ‘Tute

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An interesting pattern of Discovery Institute behavior has become evident in several events over the last 8 years. It’s a hit and run tactic, with emphasis on the “run.” In at least four significant instances of attempts to jam intelligent design creationism or one of its semantic equivalents into an educational context, the Disco ‘Tute was involved early in the process, providing aid and comfort to the local ID Creationism pushers. But later when push came to shove, the Disco ‘Tute backed out, abandoning their local proxies to the courts and the voters. I’ll briefly describe the four instances (Ohio State BOE; Mt. Vernon, OH, Dover, PA; and Darby, MO) I have in mind below the fold, highlighting the Disco ‘Tute’s style of participation.

The gaps keep getting smaller and smaller

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As we all know, Tiktaalik roseae is a magnificent example of a transitional fossil connecting aquatic critters–fish–with tetrapods, 4-limbed critters. Nevertheless, there are still gaps in that transitional sequence. A recent PNAS paper (link to abstract; full paper is behind a paywall) describes fossils of early amphibians that are later than Tiktaalik and are within Romer’s Gap. Romer’s Gap is a period around 15 million years long, from roughly 360mya to 345mya, where (up to now) there was a distinct lack of fossils of proto-tetrapods or related critters. The new PNAS paper’s senior author is Jenny Clack, one of the most prominent paleontologists studying that era, (along with people like Neal Shubin and Per Ahlberg. Per was an active commenter on the late lamented Internet Infidels Discussion Board way back when I was an administrator of IIDB.

With these new fossils, the transition from water to land animals is becoming nearly as well documented as the synapsid to mammal transition. Nobel Intent has more on the new paper.

Male fruit flies, when prevented from mating, prefer an alcoholic beverage to a soft drink. See here, here, and here.

Now that’s chutzpah

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Over at the DI Media Complaints Division/Department of calling young-earth creation scientists ID proponents and then pretending that ID isn’t creationism relabeled, David Klinghoffer has commented on the previous PT post on Coppedge v. JPL and the various suggestions and speculations that I and others made in the discussion. As is par for the course, Klinghoffer mischaracterizes clearly labeled speculation as definitive conclusions, says we’re meanies, yadda yadda.

But that’s not what’s interesting. What’s interesting is Klinghoffer’s description of Coppedge and his lawyer, William Becker. According to Klinghoffer, they are almost in opposition to each other – both in attitude and on the witness stand, of all places. Becker seems “impatient” and “frustrated” with Coppedge on the stand. Why exactly? It’s hard to say. Klinghoffer chalks it up to Coppedge’s “sheepish hesitancy” and “tendency to digress”.

Klinghoffer also mentions that Coppedge is suffering from severe headaches, which the media indicates has been delaying testimony. And Klinghoffer recounts an event Klinghoffer personally witnessed in which Becker almost got into a fist-fight after dinging another guy’s car with his door.

Klinghoffer spins all this to illustrate the “shy” and mild-mannered nature of Coppedge – says Klinghoffer,

It made me wonder if Coppedge isn’t too bashful to offer a proper evangelical pitch for anything. Think about it. “Pushing” your ideas on anyone, as distinct from diffidently offering them a DVD and making a note in your diary if they liked it or not (as Coppedge did), requires a fearless nerve, a certain cheekiness. In Jewish terms, chutzpah.

Coppedge doesn’t have chutzpah in his DNA.

Now, an alternative interpretation of all of this is that Coppedge is turning out to be a weird dude, his case is coming apart at the seams, and Becker is mad and frustrated because he knows this, which would mean that years of work will go down the drain, and, worse, there will be no compensation of legal fees. I have no strong opinion about this possibility, it could be wrong, but it seems at least as plausible as Klinghoffer’s interpretation.

What I would like to discuss is Klinghoffer’s statement that Coppedge ain’t got no chutzpah. Klinghoffer concludes:

It looks like the trial in Coppedge v. JPL has finally started after many, many delays. The Discovery Institute appears to be attempting to milk it and spin it for all it’s worth – and of course they are accusing the “Darwinists” of doing this. The reality, though, is that we don’t know anything more than what can be gleaned from the news reports and DI propaganda (and the court filings, if anyone is brave enough to dig through that tedium), and the various evolution folks have said relatively little about it as a result. JPL hasn’t released very much information – probably a good plan. But links, discussion, etc. welcome in this thread.

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Limestone Geyserite terrace, Yellowstone National Park. I took this picture in 1964 and think it may be Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces Is Grand Prismatic Spring in Midway Geyser Basin. I returned in 2002 but could not find the same location. Alas, I still do not keep a good notebook.

Eat dirt

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A recent article in Natural History magazine does not exactly advise eating dirt, but rather examines what the author calls “the hygiene hypothesis,” that is, the hypothesis that the increasing prevalence of asthma and other autoimmune diseases is the result of excessive cleanliness. Along the way, the author, Druin Burch, illuminates in some detail just how good science works.

Good news! The gorilla genome sequence was published in Nature last week, and adds to our body of knowledge about primate evolution. Here's the abstract:

Gorillas are humans' closest living relatives after chimpanzees, and are of comparable importance for the study of human origins and evolution. Here we present the assembly and analysis of a genome sequence for the western lowland gorilla, and compare the whole genomes of all extant great ape genera. We propose a synthesis of genetic and fossil evidence consistent with placing the human-chimpanzee and human-chimpanzee-gorilla speciation events at approximately 6 and 10 million years ago. In 30% of the genome, gorilla is closer to human or chimpanzee than the latter are to each other; this is rarer around coding genes, indicating pervasive selection throughout great ape evolution, and has functional consequences in gene expression. A comparison of protein coding genes reveals approximately 500 genes showing accelerated evolution on each of the gorilla, human and chimpanzee lineages, and evidence for parallel acceleration, particularly of genes involved in hearing. We also compare the western and eastern gorilla species, estimating an average sequence divergence time 1.75 million years ago, but with evidence for more recent genetic exchange and a population bottleneck in the eastern species. The use of the genome sequence in these and future analyses will promote a deeper understanding of great ape biology and evolution.

I've highlighted one phrase in that abstract because, surprise surprise, creationists read the paper and that was the only thing they saw, and in either dumb incomprehension or malicious distortion, took an article titled "Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence" and twisted it into a bumbling mess of lies titled "Gorilla Genome Is Bad News for Evolution". They treat a phenomenon called Incomplete Lineage Sorting (ILS) as an obstacle to evolution rather than an expected outcome.

The “Cornell” conference’s ancestor?

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The recent kerfuffle over the intelligent design creationism movement’s effort to publish the proceedings of a secret conference held (it appears) in a rented room at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration should remind us of an earlier Disco ‘Tute conference run along the same lines. In June 2007 an apparently secret [struck because it’s not clear it was to be secret] conference that was called the “Wistar Retrospective Symposium” was held in Boston. That one included a number of the same participants as the “Cornell” conference: Dembski, Marks, Meyer, Behe, and Axe among them. The main difference is that the 2007 meeting included some genuine experts in information theory and evolutionary biology who raised embarrassing questions for the ID pushers. Daniel R. Brooks of the University of Toronto was one such expert in attendance, and he guest-authored a post on it for the Thumb. The take-home message from Brooks was

ID dooms itself. In their own words at this conference, IDers espouse a program in which the scope and power of the Designer is restricted to purely human dimensions, in which the effects of the Designer on biological diversity have left no discernible trace that can be detected scientifically, in which the effects of Darwinian processes are the only biological phenomena that can be studied scientifically, and in which Darwinian processes are overwhelmingly more powerful than those of the Designer (because they inevitably cause the Designer’s creations to degenerate). For example, it must be evil Darwinian processes that produce emerging infectious diseases, otherwise each pathogen would remain associated only with the host for which it was designed. This is all just too silly.

Interestingly, immediately following the 2007 conference the organizers emailed participants

… stating that the ID people considered the conference a private meeting, and did not want any of us to discuss it, blog it, or publish anything about it. They said they had no intention of posting anything from the conference on the Discovery Institute’s web site (the entire proceedings were recorded). They claimed they would have some announcement at the time of the publication of the edited volume of presentations, in about a year, and wanted all of us to wait until then to say anything.

So like the recent “Cornell” conference, the organizers of the 2007 meeting planned to publish a proceedings volume, but as far as we can tell it has never appeared. While the year until publication mentioned is now approaching five years (shades of Paul Nelson’s ontogenetic depth!), there’s still nothing visible in prospect. Is the recent “conference” no more than the offspring of the earlier one, this time held sans critics so as to generate a propaganda book minus the embarrassing questions of genuine experts that Brooks described? Wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

I strongly recommend Brooks’ takedown to Thumb readers.

Hat tip to Joe Felsenstein for the reminder of Brooks’ post.

Splendour Awaits: Carnival of Evolution #45

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The 45th Carnival of Evolution is up at Adrian Thysse’s Splendour Awaits in a new and interesting format, with (at least) one bug per page guaranteed.

Intelligent design news, commentary and discussion from the 20th of February to the 7th of March, 2012. 

Semester 1 of my 3rd year of university started last week, so I’ve suddenly found myself with coursework to pore over. Likewise, the Discovery Institute seems to have kicked itself into a high gear, publishing a larger-than-average number of articles about numerous different topics, all of which just so happen to be rather important and weighty. Ah well, someone’s got to cover them, my own studies of evolutionary genetics be damned.

This week I’ll be looking at how the ID movement views the relationships between science, religion and politics, how it operates with respect to criticising evolutionary biology and supporting its own ideas, and how it deals with the “bad design” objection from critics of ID.

[UPDATED] Freshwater: Appeal denied

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Recall that John Freshwater appealed the Knox County Common Pleas Court’s affirmation of the Board of Education’s termination of his teaching contract. (See also here.)

While it is not yet posted It is now posted to the Ohio 5th District Court of Appeal’s Opinions page. I received a copy of the Court’s decision that was filed just this morning and is signed by the three-judge panel that considered the appeal. It denies Freshwater’s appeal in its entirety, affirming the decision of the Knox County Court of Common Pleas that the Board of Education’s termination of Freshwater was justified. One quotation to give the flavor:

(32) During the proceedings [the administrative hearing] appellant [Freshwater] was represented by a competent attorney, he was permitted to fully explain his actions, he presented witnesses on his behalf, and he had a full opportunity to challenge the Board’s key witnesses. R.C. 3319.16 does not contain any requirement that a teacher be afforded an opportunity to refute the contents of a referee’s report in the period between the filing of the report and its acceptance or rejection by the board of education, nor does it provide for an additional hearing before the board if the teacher does not like the results of the hearing before the referee.

Given what I saw in the administrative hearing, I might take issue with the “competent attorney” phrase, but let that be.

The Appeals Court ruled that

For the reasons stated in our accompanying Memorandum-Opinion, the judgment of the Court of Common Pleas, Knox County, is affirmed. Costs to appellant.

The Appeals Court did not address several of the questions Freshwater’s appeal raised. For example, it did not address Freshwater’s claim that he was just “… informing students of various alternative theories without regard to those theories’ religious or anti-religious implications.” The appeals court did not mention Freshwater’s claim that his termination violated his right to free speech and what his appeal called “the subsidiary right of academic freedom.” The Appeals Court confined its ruling to the question of whether the Court of Common Pleas “abused its discretion” in affirming the Board’s decision, and rejected Freshwater’s appeal on that basis.

The next step, should Freshwater and the Rutherford Institute take it, is an appeal to the Ohio State Supreme Court. I cannot predict whether that will happen. My intuition is that the Rutherford Institute would like to find a case invoking academic freedom, free speech, and free exercise on the part of a public school teacher that could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but while IANAL, I suspect that Freshwater’s case is way too weak for them to risk it on that case.

Hverir geothermal area, Iceland

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Hverir geothermal area, Iceland, 2010.

There is still mostly an eerie silence from the creationists/IDists on the Springer/Cornell issue (previous PT posts: 1, 2, 3). Basically all we have in terms of official response are the comments given to Inside Higher Ed. But much of the evidence of the details of the conference that originally existed has been taken down. Here are the examples of which I am aware:

This meme has been going around. Recently someone did What Scientists Do, so…it’s time for evolutionary biology. Obviously YMMV if you’re not an evohacker, but even you field biologists end up coming to us in the end anyway when you have to turn your pet hypothesis into a statistically testable model. (Insert maniacal laughter.)

HT: What I do generator

The following article is a draft of a review by Paul R. Gross of Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, by Mark S. Blumberg. The review will be published in Reviews of the National Center for Science Education.

An important subtext of Freaks of Nature, by the developmentalist Mark S. Blumberg, is the central importance, indeed the necessity, of monsters. To appreciate them is important, the argument goes, not only for progress in developmental biology, but also for solving the most challenging contemporary problems of evolutionary mechanism. A concomitant of this subtext is pleadings for an unmistakably more positive view, at least within those two sciences, of monsters and – as per the title – freaks of nature.

Those following the controversy about the ID/creationist volume that was scheduled for publication by Springer that is being further peer-reviewed by Springer should make sure to check out the piece by reporter Kaustuv Basu at Inside Higher Ed. (See previously: PT post #1, PT post #2.)

Here, we get the first reactions from the creationists involved with the project:

This week’s furor broke along predictable lines, with the editors of the book criticizing the attitude of the supporters of evolution. John Sanford, one of five editors of the book and a courtesy associate professor at Cornell University’s Department of Horticulture, said in an e-mail that he was amazed that anyone could think that the “Darwin Dissidents” were trying to take over academe.

“Obviously we are only trying to exercise academic freedom and freedom of speech, and are challenging a sacred cow,” he wrote. “Where are the academics who profess tolerance and open dialog? Where are the academics who would confront ‘hate speech’ on their own campus?”

There is apparently a lot of confusion about what “free speech” means in the creationist community. Just this week I experienced this with Casey Luskin. I recently emailed him to express my worry that he might have trouble sleeping at night, after he abandoned his oft-stated claims to be environmentalist and pro-science when he wrote this post: “A Friendly Letter to the Heartland Institute and Other Advocates of Free Speech on Global Warming”. The post gave all kinds of love to the global-warming deniers, and didn’t bother to raise a single finger of criticism for the deniers’ numerous shenanigans, even though Luskin agrees with the mainstream that global warming is happening and humans are causing it. Luskin replied that he was just defending freedom of speech, to which I replied:

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