March 2013 Archives

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After the unit on Creationism and Intelligent Design in my Critical Thinking/Science and Pseudoscience class at New Mexico Tech (Psych 189), I asked the students to write an essay on the question

Is “Intelligent Design” just another version of Creationism? Why?

Along came student Elaine, who included this comment in her essay:

It seems that if you are only comparing Intelligent Design against Creationism, there are enough subtleties to identify one or the other. However, if it is a case of arguing Intelligent Design vs. Creationism vs. evolution, the contrast between evolution and the other two is so great that Intelligent Design and Creationism become indistinguishable in their respective arguments. The only giveaway would be a reference to Genesis, the use of “God” rather than “Creator/Designer”, or some explicit differentiation between the two. In contrast, no one could ever possibly confuse an evolution argument with any other.

I remarked that the student had used evolution as an outgroup to correctly root the evolution/creationism/ID tree, and gave her an “A” for the assignment.

Discuss.

It has been announced that Stephen Meyer is working on a new book, Darwin’s Doubt, to be published in June by HarperOne, the religion imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. The indefatigable Evolution News and Views describes the purpose of the book as “game-changing”, and says that “a revolution is on the horizon”. The book is to start with the mystery of the Cambrian explosion.

Evolutionary biologists and paleontologists since then have struggled to explain this epic event. Dr. Meyer takes his readers on a journey through scientific history, starting with the discovery of the Burgess Shale by Charles Walcott in 1909. He shows how failed attempts to give a satisfying Darwinian explanation of the Cambrian explosion have opened the door to increasingly profound questions, posed by evolutionary biologists themselves, leading to a far greater mystery: the origin of the biological information necessary to build the animals of the Cambrian and all the living creatures that have existed on Earth.

(Yes, there are days when I too feel as if I have been struggling for 530 million years).

I suggest we help Meyer with his book. These days a book can be revised up until perhaps a month before publication, so there is still time for Meyer to take our advice. What issues should be carefully discussed? We wouldn’t want him to overlook important questions if

Dr. Meyer stands on the verge of turning the evolution debate in an entirely new direction, compelling critics of the theory of intelligent design, at last, to respond substantively and [in] detail. The book will be a game-changer, for science and culture alike.

Let me start with my suggestion (but you will have others to add). Dr. Meyer should explain the notion of Complex Specified Information (CSI) and deal carefully with the criticisms of it. Many critics of Intelligent Design argued that it is meaningless. But even those who did not consider it meaningless (and I was one) found fatal flaws in the way Meyer’s friend William Dembski used it to argue for ID. Dembski’s Law of Conservation of Complex Specified Information was invoked to argue that when we observe adaptation that is much better than could be achieved by pure mutation (monkeys-with-genomic-typewriters), that this must imply that Design is present. But alas, Elsberry and Shallit in 2003 found that when Dembski proved his theorem, he violated a condition that he himself had laid down, and I (2007) found another fatal flaw – the scale on which the adaptation is measured (the Specification) is not kept the same throughout Dembski’s argument. Keeping it the same destroys this supposed Law. Meyer should explain all this to the reader, and clarify to ID advocates that the LCCSI does not rule out natural selection as the reason why there is nonrandomly good adaptation in nature.

But enough of my obsessions: what do you suggest? Now is our chance to ensure that Dr. Meyer does not inadvertently forget some major issue, so that his game-changing book truly deals clearly and honestly with the major issues surrounding “the theory of intelligent design”.

Pile-of-plates cloud

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Pile-of-plates cloud, or lenticular clouds, as seen from Arleigh Burke Park, Boulder, Colorado. The Flatirons are seen in the foreground, to the right.

Banded gneiss

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Photograph by Danny Satterfield.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Banded gneiss on east coast of Greenland, south of Qaanaaq.

Utah mesa

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Photograph by Greg Mead.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Mesa located between Zion Canyon and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Utah, ca. 1985.

Mr. Mead writes, “It beautifully exhibits tilted and horizontal sedimentary layers, faults, and an erosional surface (an “unconformity”), all of which you can use to determine the relative age of the features. Even in this picture, the sediments include at least 20 easily identifiable beds, some separated by erosion, and they have been tilted below the unconformity.

“It is pretty much impossible for those to be formed by a single catastrophic event, and it is the kind of thing that caused naturalists, starting in the 17th century, to begin to understand the great age of the Earth.”

Evolution education in evangelicals’ home schooling

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The Atlantic has an interesting story on evangelical Christian home-schoolers who prefer using science teaching materials that present genuine science rather than the creationist crap that infests home-school “science” curricula like those from Answers in Genesis or A Beka Book. I was struck by this quotation from one of the home-schooling mothers:

The assertion that anyone who believes in evolution “disregards” the Bible offends many evangelicals who want their children to be well-versed in modern science. Jen Baird Seurkamp, an evangelical who homeschools her children, avoids textbooks that discredit evolution. “Our science curriculum is one currently used in public schools,” she says. “We want our children to be educated, not sheltered from things we are afraid of them learning.”

Contrast that intellectual courage with the fundamentalist Christian supporter of John Freshwater I talked with some years ago:

I also spoke with one of Freshwater’s adult supporters. The No True Scotsman fallacy was alive and well in that conversation. There was an enlightening moment when I recommended that he read Francis Collins’ The Language of God to get an idea of how an evangelical Christian who is a scientist tries to deal with the conflict. The man asked if Collins accepts Genesis. I replied that Collins is an evangelical Christian, but that he doesn’t read Genesis literally and believes that evolution is the means by which God created the diversity of biological life. The man then refused to consider reading it, saying “I don’t need to look at beliefs I don’t agree with.” That level of willful ignorance pretty much says it all.

I hope that Ms. Seurkamp is aware of Dennis Venema’s series of posts introducing evolution at BioLogos (click “Next post in series” at the bottom of each OP to step through the posts now up, or go here for all of Venema’s posts).

Duane Gish dies

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Duane Gish, the notorious young-earth creationist, has died at 92. You may find an obituary that is respectful yet pulls no punches here.

Some Neil Shubin video

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Neil Shubin has been out and about speaking on behalf of his recent book, The Universe Within, in a variety of venues. He summarizes his theme in this video. And as dessert, there’s this short one on Tiktaalik from the Royal Institution channel.

Tasmanipatus barretti

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Photograph by James Wood.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

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Tasmanipatus barretti – giant velvet worm found in a rotting log in northeast Tasmania. This species is restricted to a range of 600 km2 in the northeast corner of the state and is listed as rare under Tasmanian state legislation.

We have been going through our archives to find excellent contest entries that have not so far been posted. We begin with this picture, which dates from the first photography contest in 2009. Our apologies to the photographers, but we had an embarrassment of riches the first few years.

To bee or not to bee*

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The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that wild bees pollinate plants more efficiently than domesticated European honeybees. Not only that, they are free, whereas domesticated honeybees have to be rented and are becoming more expensive because of colony collapse disorder.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported a striking decline in the number of wild bee species and, in particular, of the once-familiar furry, yellow, and black American bumblebee.

*Sorry, could not resist.

Freshwater: (Amended 3/4) Remarks on the oral arguments

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Preface: These remarks are not particularly well organized (I’m fighting a lousy head cold), and are intended to serve as starting points for discussion based on the video of oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court on February 27.

Oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court in the case of John Freshwater’s termination as a middle school science teacher were held on February 27. News coverage is already out there: the Columbus Dispatch and HuffPo have stories, and the Mount Vernon News has the most complete news story, unfortunately behind a subscription wall.

At first blush the oral arguments did not helpful to the Board. The Rutherford Institute attorney representing Freshwater, Rita Dunaway, was polished and answered questions from the justices with facility. She seemed well-versed on the case and had references to the record and law at her fingertips. And she stayed on message: She knew the argument she wanted to make and stuck to it.

On the other hand, the attorney for the Board of Education (retained by the Board’s insurance company), David Kane Smith, was not as smooth and did not seem as well-prepared or facile in his responses to questions. He seemed to have trouble getting back on track after questions, and did not seem at ease, as Dunaway did.

However, Smith was operating under a disadvantage: he was subjected to exceptionally aggressive and discursive questions from one member of the Court, Justice Paul Pfeifer. Pfeifer’s questions departed significantly from the kinds of questions he has asked in other cases, he used details that were not part of the record before the Court and which were tangential (if not irrelevant) to the case and its record, and he posed at least one question which called for unfounded speculation from Smith.

I’ll make some more remarks about the oral arguments below the fold.

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