Recently in News Roundup Category

I am sure we all read it in the papers several weeks ago: Two-thirds of all cancers are caused by bad luck. The New York Times said so. Science magazine, which published the original article said so too.

Only problem, the original article did not say that, and to her credit, Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, the Science reporter who “said so too,” corrected the record in a sort of meditation on the difficulty of getting difficult scientific concepts correct while working on deadline.

In fact, the authors did not say that “[r]andom mutations may account for two-thirds of the risk of getting many types of cancer, leaving the usual suspects—heredity and environmental factors—to account for only one-third, …” as the Times put it. What they said was more subtle, that two-thirds of the difference in cancer rates between different tissues could be explained by random bad luck. That is, “[s]ome tissues are overtaken by cancer more readily than others, and mutations accumulating in stem cells explained two-thirds of that variability,” in Couzin-Frankel’s words.

It is good to know that Science is self-correcting.

I would not exactly call it a Christmas present, but today I happened to learn of a press release circulated by the Nature Publishing Group on December 2 of this year. The press release was not exactly a model of clarity, but if I understand it correctly, subscribers to any of a number of the publishing group’s journals can legitimately make articles available to individual colleagues who are not subscribers. In addition, readers of “100 media outlets and blogs … will be able to provide their own readers with a link to a full text, read-only view of the original scientific paper.”

Recognizing that “researchers are already sharing content, often in hidden corners of the Internet or using clumsy, time-consuming practices,” Nature has decided to “present a new way to conveniently share and disseminate this knowledge using technology from one of our innovative and disruptive divisions – Digital Science – to provide a real solution to the global problem of how to efficiently and legitimately share scientific research for the benefit of all.”

I consider this development very welcome indeed.


Because of the cognitive dissonance required to buy into pseudoscientific beliefs, it’s not surprising when an adherent of one pseudoscience is sucked into believing another one. For example, there is considerable overlap between advocates of 9/11 Truth beliefs and advocates of anti-Semitic causes, or between young-earth creationists and climate change deniers. The Discovery Institute has been engaging in climate-change denial for some time (see here and here, for example), so it’s really not surprising to see today’s banner article on the Heartland Institute’s news page by Discovery’s Casey Luskin. (Last we saw, Luskin was was attacking Neil deGrasse Tyson and COSMOS with straw-man misrepresentations.)

Luskin’s July 10th article in Heartland’s site is titled “Nation’s Schools Targeted with Mythical Alarmist ‘Consensus’ Program.”. The post is

… the first in a two-part column on how the National Center for Science Education is targeting the nation’s schools to enforce a mythical consensus on global warming alarmism.


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.

Imagine that. anecdotal-oops.jpg

The above is the copy I got in an email.

Somebody spilled the beans, alas, and the corrected version with “antidote” has been posted.

Too late, we’ve gotten our belly laugh! Nyah Nyah, Discovery Institute, no memory hole is big enough to make this laughable faux pas go away.

Have you ever noticed how boring Creationism and/or Intelligent Design are? How many times must we endure hackneyed claims like “The Flagellum proves Intelligent Design,” or “The Cambrian Explosion Defies Darwinism” ?

Science, however, is continuously being refined and improved, and new discoveries are the order of the day. Here are a few current stories that have relevance to the creationism-versus-evolution “debate.”

  • Darwin’s Dilemma Resolved: Evolution’s ‘Big Bang’ Explained by Five Times Faster Rates of Evolution
  • Functioning ‘Mechanical Gears’ Seen in Nature for First Time
  • DNA Double Take

More below the fold.

Science on trial?


Lou Dubose reported in the Washington Spectator the other day that Eastman Chemical prevailed in a lawsuit against two small companies, and Dubose thinks that decision could have far-ranging consequences. I am not certain whether science was on trial, but as it turned out in vitro assays may have been.

I cannot find much interesting material that postdates the decision, but you can find a slightly gloating press release by Eastman Chemical here.

Save Siccar Point!


rocksdontlie.jpg I recently acquired the new book “The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood” by David Montgomery. It’s a splendid read, and very much applicable to the readership of Panda’s Thumb. The book has some excellent pictures and discussions regarding Siccar Point in Scotland, “…celebrated as the place where Scottish farmer James Hutton discovered geologic time..” Siccar Point graces the cover of Montgomery’s book.

Just last Thursday, I cited Siccar Point in a lecture on the Flood for our new social studies class at New Mexico Tech in Socorro. (See slides 56-58). I have resolved to visit Siccar Point - it’s on my bucket list.

That’s why I found this announcement from the Facebook group “Save Siccar Point” to be quite disturbing. They are alarmed that developers are “ruining the geological mecca of Siccar Point, the location of Hutton’s unconformity.”

More info here:

From the site comes this urgent plea:

The deadline for objections has been extended to 23 September 2012 - the day before the application is considered. If you want to lodge an objection you have some time to do it. Please don’t forget!

It still not too late to object…keep them coming.

You can object by email if you want. Here’s how:

  1. In the Subject Line put “12/00929/FUL Objection Comment”
  2. Add your comment in the email body
  3. Send your email to [Enable javascript to see this email address.] or [Enable javascript to see this email address.]

If you want to CC anyone else into your email, you might want to consider:

  1. Scottish Natural Heritage: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]
  2. Scottish Environmental Protection Agency: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]
  3. Crown Estates: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]
  4. Dunglass Estate: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]

I have sent along my objections - will you?

(Don’t forget to be polite!)


Well, this is interesting! Pseudo-historian David Barton, whom we last heard from here on the Thumb declaring that America’s Founding Fathers had considered evolution, and rejected it for creationism, has had his newest book examined and rejected by a group of conservative authors headed by the Discovery Institute’s Jay W. Richards.

From the New York Times Artsbeat blog for August 14, 2012:

Last month the History News Network voted David Barton’s book “The Jefferson Lies” the “least credible history book in print.” Now the book’s publisher, Thomas Nelson, has decided to stop publishing and distributing it.

The book, which argues that Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiastic orthodox Christian who saw no need for a wall of separation between church and state, has attracted plenty of criticism since it appeared in April, with an introduction by Glenn Beck. But the death knell came after Jay W. Richards, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author, with James Robison, of “Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family and Freedom Before It’s Too Late,” began to have doubts and started an investigation.

The Times blog refers to a detailed August 7th, 2012 article by Thomas Kidd at World Magazine, which notes

Richards says in recent months he has grown increasingly troubled about Barton’s writings, so he asked 10 conservative Christian professors to assess Barton’s work.

Their response was negative. Some examples: Glenn Moots of Northwood University wrote that Barton in The Jefferson Lies is so eager to portray Jefferson as sympathetic to Christianity that he misses or omits obvious signs that Jefferson stood outside “orthodox, creedal, confessional Christianity.”

More on the story in an August 10th report by Tim Murphy of Mother Jones, “The Right’s Favorite Historian Comes Apart at the Seams” :

Barton has turned the study of America’s Christian roots into a lucrative business, hawking books and video sermons, speaking at churches and political confabs, and scoring a fawning New York Times profile and interviews on the Daily Show. He’s got friends in high places: “I almost wish that there would be like a simultaneous telecast and all Americans would be forced–at gunpoint no less–to listen to every David Barton message,” Mike Huckabee told an Evangelical audience in March of 2011. “I never listen to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things,” Newt Gingrich told conservatives in Iowa that same month.

That’s probably because much of what David Barton writes seems to have originated in David Barton’s head.

On Thursday, Barton’s publisher announced that it was recalling Barton’s newest book, The Jefferson Lies, from stores and suspending publication because it had “lost confidence” in the book’s accuracy. That came one day after NPR published a scathing fact-check of Barton’s work, specifically his claim that passages of the Constitution were lifted verbatim from the Bible.

Wow. We know how much the Discovery Institute needs to feed on disinformation and polemics. That one of their leaders had to reject Barton’s book is a strong indication that the book must be really, really, really bad!


Creo Catfight in Kentucky!


CatHam.jpg I had the displeasure of personally experiencing Kan Ham’s vitriol, applied to scientists at the time, way back in 1995, when he brought his creation seminar to Albuquerque. Time has passed, but Ham is still dispensing the vitriol. What’s changed is that now, he’s railing against his fellow Creationists!

The Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader reported on March 24th that

Ken Ham, the man behind the Creation Museum and the future Ark Encounter amusement park, has been disinvited from a homeschool convention in Cincinnati next week because he made “ungodly, and mean-spirited” comments about another speaker, according to the convention’s organizers.

Ham also will be excluded from future conventions, according to a statement by Brennan Dean of Great Homeschool Conventions.

“The board believes that Ken’s public criticism of the convention itself and other speakers at our convention require him to surrender the spiritual privilege of addressing our homeschool audience,” Dean said in the statement.

At issue are criticisms by Ham of Peter Enns of the Biologos Foundation, who has said the fall of Adam and Eve can be construed as a symbolic story of Israel’s beginnings, rather than a literal description of human beginnings.

On his blog and in other statements, Ham takes issue with this view and Enns’ homeschool curriculum.

“In fact,” Ham wrote in a recent blog post, “what he teaches about Genesis is not just compromising Genesis with evolution, it is outright liberal theology that totally undermines the authority of the Word of God.” …

On the Web: Answers in Genesis Explains the Rift


Flew is of interest to PT readers in part because of his supposed conversion to deism a few years ago. You may find a detailed obituary here. The National Center for Science Education has also run a brief obituary here.

We covered Flew’s conversion to deism here, with an update here. Flew was an influential philosopher and was an atheist for the bulk of his career. His essay Theology and Falsification was widely read and translated into 40 languages. You may see my take on it here. The paper is also available here, with an introduction by Flew, but without the discussion with R. M. Hare.

In later years, evidently influenced by Gerald Schroeder and the intelligent-design creationists, Flew “converted” to deism and was badly misused by creationists. He later admitted that Mr. Schroeder had “mistaught” him, but he continued to believe that life could not have begun without some intelligent or purposeful creator.

According to NCSE, Flew published 2 monographs on evolution, but they say that these works were “arguably marred by a fondness for claims of genetic linkage between intelligence and race.” I do not know anything about these monographs and so will not comment further. I will remember Flew for the essay in which he showed just how foolish it is not just to believe without evidence, but more, to prop up your belief with untestable speculations.

Some Big News Items


Some big stories came out this week.

Science Daily reported on March 3rd that

A fossil that was celebrated last year as a possible “missing link” between humans and early primates is actually a forebearer of modern-day lemurs and lorises, according to two papers by scientists at The University of Texas at Austin, Duke University and the University of Chicago. In an article now available online in the Journal of Human Evolution, four scientists present evidence that the 47-million-year-old Darwinius masillae is not a haplorhine primate like humans, apes and monkeys, as the 2009 research claimed. They also note that the article on Darwinius published last year in the journal PLoS ONE ignores two decades of published research showing that similar fossils are actually strepsirrhines, the primate group that includes lemurs and lorises. ‘Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human evolution,’ says Chris Kirk, associate professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. ‘Every year, scientists describe new fossils that contribute to our understanding of primate evolution. What’s amazing about Darwinius is, despite the fact that it’s nearly complete, it tells us very little that we didn’t already know from fossils of closely related species.’ ..

And, the BBC reports on March 4th that

An international panel of experts has strongly endorsed evidence that a space impact was behind the mass extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs. They reached the consensus after conducting the most wide-ranging analysis yet of the evidence. Writing in Science journal, they rule out alternative theories such as large-scale volcanism. The analysis has been discussed at the 41st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in the US. A panel of 41 international experts reviewed 20 years’ worth of research to determine the cause of the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction, around 65 million years ago. The extinction wiped out more than half of all species on the planet, including the dinosaurs, bird-like pterosaurs and large marine reptiles, clearing the way for mammals to become the dominant species on Earth. Their review of the evidence shows that the extinction was caused by a massive asteroid or comet smashing into Earth at Chicxulub on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula…

While creationists are sure to glom onto these stories as evidence that any change of opinions over time means entire disciplines are simply nonsense, both of these stories show science incorporating new information, and improving with age.

Contrast that with creationism or “intelligent design,” for which nothing becomes clearer or better understood over time. Hmm - what is the actual mechanism by which the Designer infuses new designs into actual, living organisms? Search me!



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. …


Exactly one-hundred and fifty years ago, on November 24, 1859, On the Origin of Species was published. Ever since then, some have been predicting the imminent demise of the theory of evolution. But it’s still here, and better than ever! Let’s make this an open thread, post links to the best Origin-related resources you’ve found, or whatever else you think is a milestone in the 150 years since 1859.

Here’s mine: The evolution of The Origin of Species. And take the National Geographic Darwin quiz.

Blogging Batholiths Part 2



I’m back from field work, and have finally gotten enough time to get my photos web-ready after returning from Batholiths Onland. (see Blogging Batholiths: Part 1 for a summary of the 1st 8 days of the adventure, and a description of the scientific goals of the project; the part 1 photo essay is here.)

The updated photo tour includes reactions to the activist who tried to sabotage the project, finally getting some data, splendid photos from team members, and more. Part 2 starts off with a hike up to the gorgeous falls in Hagensborg, BC, and can be found here.

Comments may be left here or there, but nowhere in between.

Update: a piece about the failed attempt to sabotage the project, “Eco-warrior trashes seismic experiment” by Rex Dalton, appears in the 23 July 2009 issue of Nature.

Update, Aug. 5th, 2009: Forest fires have come to the region. More below the fold.

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.

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.

According to a report in the Boulder Daily Camera, vandals tore an eye-wash station from the wall Thursday night and flooded the Ramaley biology building at the University of Colorado. The building was damaged, but initial reports suggest that the scientific work of the faculty was unharmed. There is apparently no indication that the biology building was specifically targeted, nor that the vandalism is related to recent threats directed against University of Colorado biologists.

The Phoenix has Landed


Phoenix_Horizon_md_329.jpgImage Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The Phoenix lander has successfully touched down on Mars. The lander carries a CD which includes the names of my children.

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