June 2014 Archives

A follow-up on the Nye-Ham debate in the Reports of the National Center for Science Education: Andrew J. Petto said it wasn’t a real debate, which is sort of true, but the most interesting observations, to me, were those made by John W. Patterson. Prof. Patterson, an engineering professor, correctly gives Ken Ham credit for not obfuscating, for not pretending that creationism is based on anything but his interpretation of the Bible. He thinks that other creationists may fault Mr. Ham for his candor, but he argues that

there will be far less public confusion about the distinctions between legitimate evidence-based science and the faith-based biblical varieties so successfully propounded by creationist debaters. In contrast, Ham’s approach lays bare what’s really behind all creationism, from the young-Earth biblical literalism to the more inchoate ‘intelligent design’ models.

Photo Contest VI: Finalists


Here are the finalists of the 2014 photography contest. We received approximately 24 photographs from 10 photographers, somewhat fewer than in previous years. Most of the pictures were excellent, and we had to enlist our wife to help narrow the number of finalists to 5.

To choose the finalists, we considered what we thought were the scientific and pictorial qualities of the photographs, and also attempted to represent as many photographers and present as much variety as possible. The text was written by the photographers and lightly edited for consistency.

The finalists are given below the proverbial fold, in alphabetical order of last name. Please look through their photographs before voting for your favorite. You will have to be logged in to vote on the poll. We know it is possible to game these polls. Please be responsible and vote only once. If we think that the results are invalid, we will cancel the contest.

Polling will close Friday, July 11, at approximately 12:00 CST.

Reed Cartwright contributed to this post.

You may get an idea how science really works from an article by Boston science writer Kate Becker in today’s Boulder Daily Camera. (I think the column is exclusive to the Daily Camera.)

Becker describes the Bicep2 experiment, which looked for evidence of cosmic inflation by examining the polarization of the cosmic background radiation. The authors of the paper announced its conclusion before the paper had been submitted for review; since then, others have criticized their method and thrown the conclusion of the paper into doubt. Specifically, some think that cosmic dust may polarize the radiation in such a way as to give a false positive, in this case a polarization that mimics that of the cosmic background. The researchers have considered cosmic dust and disagree. At any rate, their article has finally been published, and you may find the abstract here. I read the abstract, but as Casca said, it was Greek to me, and I have no opinion concerning the conclusion. We will, as Becker notes, wait until other telescopes weigh in or the Bicep2 data are further evaluated.

By David MacMillan.

5. Evolution of evolution.

Most creationists believe that the theory of evolution was developed out of an ideological commitment to explaining life apart from God. Explanations of the history of evolutionary theory often point out personal struggles in the lives of prominent scientists – Darwin most often, of course – in support of this belief. “Secular scientists wanted a way of explaining a world that didn’t require God, so they invented this ridiculous theory.” To creationists, this foundation offers an easy way of dismissing all the theoretical and observational bases of evolution. If evolution is just wishful thinking born of anti-theistic extremism, then all the “evidence” is reduced to ad hoc speculation.

Because of this misconception, creationists rarely understand the actual history of how geology, paleontology, and biology built upon each other to provide us with our understanding of the world. Mainstream geology emerged significantly ahead of Darwin’s work; many early geologists were Christians. Studying the distribution of rock layers around the globe allowed geologists to construct a complete geologic column and begin appreciating the incredible amount of time the column represents. Moreover, the regular progression of extinct species fossilized throughout the geologic column had been well-catalogued.

Freshwater: The waiting continues


John Freshwater’s petition for a writ of certiorari has been placed on the SCOTUS docket for a September 29, 2014, conference.

Pan troglodytes

Photograph by Gerry L.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.


Pan troglodytes – common chimpanzee.

By David MacMillan.

4. Transitional fossils.

One of the most common and most frustrating creationist objections to evolution is the claim that there are no “missing links” or “transitional fossils” required by evolution. This claim is made without qualification, particularly in presentations to lay or church audiences. As unthinkable as it might seem, creationists really do believe that transitional fossils simply do not exist. On this basis, they conclude that evolution must be false.

They maintain this completely erroneous view by consistently misrepresenting what a transitional fossil actually is. Creationists don’t deny that Archaeopteryx, Pakicetus, Tiktaalik, Australopithecus, and similar prominent examples of transitional fossils exist; they rather argue that these are not “true” transitional fossils.

A report this morning on NPR asks, “Is collecting animals for science a noble mission or a threat?” The question is left unanswered, but the reporter notes that collecting specimens from small, isolated, and endangered species can be counterproductive, at best. Ben Minteer, an author of the Science article that inspired the NPR report (not to mention a rebuttal by around 120 other scientists), recommends photographs and DNA samples in lieu of specimens, but other researchers challenge that approach as impractical.

Also this morning, Mark Bekoff, a professor emeritus of evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, takes the Boulder Daily Camera to task for using the term “euthanasia” when black bears or cougars are killed for venturing into an urban environment. The animals are not euthanized, says Bekoff; they are killed. I might add that laboratory rats, for example, are not sacrificed; they are killed.

All of which raises the question: Are we too ready to kill nonhuman animals?

si-JulAug2014.jpg I’ve a brief new article in the new Skeptical Inquirer (July/August 2014) regarding Casey Luskin’s botched attack on the second episode of Cosmos. Here it follows - your comments are welcomed.

Fox TV’s Seth McFarlane has joined with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow and collaborator, to continue Sagan’s marvelous Cosmos series of decades ago. The new series is a splendid blend of homage to Sagan’s original one with dazzling new graphics–and new discoveries.

The second episode of the series, first broadcast March 16, 2014, covered evolution and natural selection. (Link) As expected, creationists were furious. The main promoter of “intelligent design,” Seattle’s Discovery Institute, has run several anti-Cosmos blogs on its Evolution News and Views (ENV) website.

In their zeal to attack Tyson and the Cosmos series, however, the Discovery Institute has created a stunning example of the straw man logical fallacy. This fallacy is so named because it involves attacking one’s opponent not by an honest dissection of his or her actual views but by attacking a caricature, a distorted misrepresentation of those views. The Discovery Institute’s attack on the evolution episode of Cosmos was a particularly egregious example of this fallacy–a straw man for the ages, as it were.

Recurvirostra americana

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Recurvirostra americana – American avocet, Walden Ponds, Boulder, Colorado.

By David MacMillan.

3. You don’t evolve, your species does.

Creationists often conceptualize evolution as something which is purely vertical: successive changes from parent to child to grandchild to great-grandchild accumulating over time. They can hardly be faulted for this misconception, because this view seems to be shared by the general public and even reinforced by the sometimes-imprecise explanations and depictions of evolution by museums and science educators.

Evolutionary adaptation, however, does not happen in a straight line from parent to child. Rather, adaptation takes place throughout a population as different genetic sequences spread outward from parents to all their offspring and are recombined and reshuffled in many different individuals each successive generation. Evolution is wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. It is the combination of changing genetic material across an entire population that makes major evolutionary adaptation possible; without this constant mixing and recombination from the entire population, evolution would grind almost to a halt. Evolution is a phenomenon that functions not at the level of the individual, nor at the level of individual lineages, but across the entire population within the species (Figure 1).


Figure 1. This hypothetical example depicts evolutionary change as an emergent property of the entire population. Both the “ABC” combinations (in shades of blue) and the “XYZ” combinations (in shades of red) offer a survival advantage and are passed on, while combinations of the two (shown in shades of purple) are detrimental and are removed from the population. No specific mutation order is required; as long as the selection pressure remains steady, the mutations accumulate together (essentially “finding” each other) and two separate genotypes emerge.

Climate and creationism


The economist Paul Krugman has come to the “somewhat surprising conclusion” that global warming denial is not mainly about vested economic interests but rather asks us to

think about global warming from the point of view of someone who grew up taking Ayn Rand seriously, believing that the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem, never the solution. Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn'™t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian worldview.

I do not want to be flip, but almost any reader of PT could have told him that; just substitute “Book of Genesis” in place of “Ayn Rand,” make other substitutions as necessary, and you will see what I mean. If Krugman is right, and I am sure that he is, he brings bad news: People will deny global warming with their last breath, and they will not be convinced even by a mountain of evidence or the testimony of the vast majority of experts.

Indeed, there is far more money behind global-warming denial than behind evolution denial, and denialists will fight even quintessentially conservative solutions like cap and trade until, as the columnist Leonard Pitts put it today, the west Antarctic ice sheet falls into the ocean and our grandchildren vie for beachfront property in St. Louis.

Note added approximately 2:50 MDT: See also an article in the Daily Kos linking David Koch to climate-change denial. Mr. Koch, according to the author,

Anas cyanoptera

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Anas cyanoptera – cinnamon teal, Walden Ponds, Boulder, Colorado.

Freshwater: Board’s Brief in Response filed with SCOTUS


The Mt. Vernon, Ohio, Board of Education has filed its Brief in Opposition to Freshwater’s petition for a writ of certiori with the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS). Recall that Freshwater asked SCOTUS to overturn his firing on the ground that it violated his First Amendment rights, and that prohibiting his teaching the “scientific strengths and weaknesse of biological evolution” also violates the First Amendment. I haven’t found an online version of the Brief in Rersponse yet (the Court’s docket is here, so I’ll make a few remarks on what I found most interesting.

More below the fold

The paperback edition of Stephen Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design has just been published. It has a new chapter responding to critics of the book – Donald Prothero, Charles Marshall, and yours truly, the blogger the ID guys were dismissing for a year based on the fact that I wrote the review quickly. The largest section of the new chapter responds to me.

The response shows Meyer is finally improving on a few issues like crown/stem group thinking, but rather like a student who flunked the midterm of a phylogenetics course and decided to finally start paying attention, Meyer still makes huge, amateur mistakes. I’ll highlight a few.

By David MacMillan

2. Variation and adaptation

The majority of modern creation science freely admits the existence of biological variation, adaptation, and speciation. Indeed, the recent-creation model – particularly the belief that all extant life descended from a small group of “kinds” present on Noah’s Ark which diversified into all families on Earth after a global flood – requires enormous adaptive variation and near-constant speciation. Creationists estimate that fewer than 10,000 pairs of land-dwelling, air-breathing animals on the Ark diversified to represent all families alive today. There are around 6.5 million land-dwelling species today, so millions of speciation events would have needed to take place over the past 44 centuries since their global flood.

Photography Contest, VI


Kodak Precision Enlarger, Model 1.

Note added June 16 at approximately 1:10 CST: Submission period extended 1 week to June 23.

Polish your lenses, oil your tripods, search your archives – the sixth Panda’s Thumb photography contest, begins – now!

We will accept entries from 12:00 CST, June 2, through 12:00 CST, June 16 June 23.

The theme of the contest is History of Evolution, by which we mean photographs of fruit flies, barnacles, pea plants; fossils, stromatolites; geological formations; anything related to how we know or have deduced common descent. Entries submitted under this category should include a line or two explaining how or why the photograph relates to the history of evolution.

Additionally, we encourage entries in a second, General category, which includes pictures of just about anything of scientific interest. If we get enough entries, consistently with Rules 11 and 12, we may divide either category and award additional prizes, presuming, of course, that we can find more prizes.

The winners will each receive a book generously donated by the National Center for Science Education.

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