Saturday, June 30, 2007


Sympathy from Satan

A good start against theocracy is a reminder of the sort of theology that lends itself to political dominance. Unthinking acceptance of sacred texts is de rigeur to initiate a theocracy. While many religions have the will to dominion, here in America it is a certain type of Christianity that threatens the secular pillars laid down by the Founders.

And there is no better corrosive against wooden literal readings of Genesis than the humanism of Mark Twain. The following is from "Passage From Satan's Diary," picking up as Eve has taken the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge:

Poor ignorant things, the command to refrain had meant nothing to them, they were but children, and could not understand untried things and verbal abstractions which stood for matters outside of their little world and their narrow experience. Eve reached for an apple! -- oh, farewell, Eden ...

It was pitiful. She was like one who wakens slow and confusedly out of a sleep. She gazed half-vacantly at me, then at Adam, holding her curtaining fleece of golden hair back with her hand, then her wandering glance fell upon her naked person. The red blood mounted to her cheek, and she sprang behind a bush and stood there crying, and saying --

"Oh, my modesty is lost to me - my unoffending form is become a shame to me -- my mind was pure and clean; for the first time it is soiled with a filthy thought!" She moaned and muttered in her pain, and drooped her head, saying, "I am degraded -- I have fallen, oh so low, and I shall never rise again."

Adam's eyes were fixed upon her in a dreamy amazement, he could not understand what had happened, it being outside his world as yet, and her words having no meaning for one void of the Moral Sense. And now his wonder grew: for, unknown to Eve, her hundred years rose upon her, and faded the heaven of her eyes and the tints of her young flesh, and touched her hair with gray, and traced faint sprays of wrinkles about her mouth and eyes, and shrunk her form, and dulled the satin lustre of her skin.

All this the fair boy saw: then loyally and bravely he took the apple and tasted it, saying nothing.

The change came upon him also. Then he gathered boughs for both and clothed their nakedness, and they turned and went their way, hand in hand and bent with age, and so passed from sight.


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In the ongoing saga of Cheri Yecke's grimly determined immolation of her own reputation, tragedy has struck ... videotape has been discovered!

To briefly recap, Cheri Yecke, who was once Minnesota's education commissioner and now is a leading candidate to be Florida's next education commissioner, apparently found the story by a local Minnesota newspaper about her prior support for Intelligent Design's "teach the controversy" doppelgänger, shall we say, inconvenient. She then hired some outfit called "ReputationDefender," to try to rid her of the bothersome quote by getting Wes to excise it from his website.

But now, the worst nightmare of the "truth is merely a political tactic" crowd has come to pass and there is Cheri, live (so to speak) for all the world to see, indeed humping the Santorum amendment as permitting local school boards to pretend that there is some sort of scientific debate about the adequacy of evolutionary theory to generally explain the biological world. Twenty-first Century technology makes it so hard to maintain early Nineteenth Century belief systems on the quiet!

Wes Elsberry, ever the gentleman, is treating this merely as a controversy over a question of fact and has refrained from the kind cheap gloating and name-calling that many would fall prey to.

Fortunately, Wes can count on bastards like me and PZ to take care of that end of it.

Friday, June 29, 2007


Cloistering Science

Some atheism promoters, like Sam Harris, are fond of citing the polls showing that 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in a personal God, as if studying science somehow causes the adoption of atheism. A new poll may have turned that notion of the causation involved on its head.

According to the new study, "Religion Among Academic Scientists" (RAAS), conducted by Elaine Howard Ecklund, an assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Buffalo, which is billed as first systematic analysis in decades to examine the religious beliefs and practices of elite academics in the sciences, "concluded that the assumption that becoming a scientist necessarily leads to loss of religion is untenable."

Ecklund says, "It appears that those from non-religious backgrounds disproportionately self-select into scientific professions. This may reflect the fact that there is tension between the religious tenets of some groups and the theories and methods of particular sciences and it contributes to the large number of non-religious scientists."
While certainly such tension might explain a part of the difference, there are many mainstream religious traditions the tenets of which not only fail to conflict with science but whose traditions actually value the practice of science.

Another possibility might be that, as many prominent evolutionary biologists apparently believe (according to another recent survey by Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine), religious belief is an evolutionary adaptation that is, presumptively, genetically based. In that case, the self-selection, far out of proportion to the actual conflict between religious beliefs and scientific practice, could be a result of some more basic mechanism that keeps theists from pursuing science at a high level. But that raises the question Larry Moran and, in a rare moment of lucidity, Michael Egnor, pose: if belief in God is an evolutionary trait that needs explanation, then so must be the lack of belief. Following the logic to the end, science might well be, for some people, at least, a religion substitute.

In any event, if the authors of this study are right, it isn't so much that science defeats religion, it's that most religious people chose not to immerse themselves so deeply in the intellectual struggle that goes into a science career. But, then again, most people, no matter what their attitude towards religion, aren't prepared to make that commitment.

Maybe top level scientists, in their deep vocation, are the evolutionary equivalent of monks for the theism adapted.


Uncommon Sense

Here's just a passing thought from Walter Isaacson's biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.
Franklin's reputation has suffered, off and on, in ages that value passion for profound ideals and denigrate compromise in aid of practical results and respect for views other than your own. To the charge that Franklin's main contribution to religious debate was a "good-natured tolerance," Isaacson notes:

Well, perhaps so, but the concept of good-natured religious tolerance was in fact no small advance for civilization in the eighteenth century. It was one of the greatest contributions to arise out of the Enlightenment, more indispensable than that of the most profound theologies of the era.

... Or, for that matter, than of the most profound anti-theologies of this era.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Wishing Well

Governor Bob Riley of Alabama has a unique way of seeking to fulfill his duties: he's trying to get someone else to take care of his state's problems:

Riley issued a proclamation Thursday declaring June 30 through July 7 as "Days of Prayer for Rain" and asked citizens to pray individually and in their houses of worship.

"Throughout our history, Alabamians have turned in prayer to God to humbly ask for His blessings and to hold us steady in times of difficulty. This drought is without question a time of great difficulty for our farmers and for communities across our state," Riley said in a statement.
So, instead of having the government actually try to do something for farmers and communities in the state, the governor is asking them to ask someone else for help. And, of course, should God not come through, we all will know whose fault it would be ... them sinful farmers and communities, not the government's!

On the other hand, it might be a wise move to consult the people of Marble Falls on the potential pitfalls of getting what you wish for.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Can't Tell a Lie?

Something called Vision Forum Ministries, whose big issue seems to be "Biblical Patriarchy," has awarded its "2007 George Washington Man of the Year" award to ... wait for it ... Ken Ham!

Ken Ham is the esteemed 2007 recipient of the George Washington Man of the Year Award because we believe him to be an individual whose vision and persevering spirit are noteworthy for giving hope to the next generation and defending the cause of Christ in our nation. Specifically, Ken's uncompromising defense of Genesis, and his long battle to open the Creation Museum, is one of the most singular contributions of our generation," observed [Vision Forum president Doug] Phillips.
According to the flacks ... er ... press release:

Each year, Vision Forum gives the George Washington Man of the Year Award to recognize and honor that man who most clearly demonstrates, through their public courage, the stalwart spirit and mature leadership embodied by General George Washington.
Given that Washington felt so strongly about good education that he left money in his will for establishing both a school in Alexandria, Virginia, and for a national university, I'm pretty sure that whirring sound you hear is coming from the family vault at Mount Vernon.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Giving Someone's Chain a Yenke

Cheri Yecke, once Minnesota's education commissioner and now Florida's K-12 chancellor, is a leading candidate to be Florida's next education commissioner. There's just a little problem with her past, however. It seems that, even in Florida, being a closet creationist of the "teach the controversy" sort is not a bright spot on a candidate's résumé.

Florida's No. 2 education official is tangled in a cyber-tussle with a tiny Minnesota newspaper and a scientist who blogs about the politics of teaching evolution.

Back in October 2003, the Princeton Union Eagle wrote that Cheri Yecke, then Minnesota's education commissioner, explained in "advance publicity" for a public hearing that "schools could include the concept of 'intelligent design' in teaching how the world came to be."
The scientist is gentlemanly Wesley Elsberry, the keeper of the Talk Origins Archive and, until recently, employed by the National Center for Science Education. Wes has offered to make a correction if Yecke can show the original story he quoted was wrong.

Yecke has hired something called "ReputationDefender," which promises to "DESTROY" (its shouting) content "that you don't like." Notice, that's not content that is "false" or "libelous" or even just "wrong." It is merely something that the client doesn't like.

Let's make sure she gets her money's worth then!

Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke, Cheri Yecke.


Rule, Britannia!

The British Government has responded to a petition that asks:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to prevent the use of creationist and other pseudo-scientific propaganda in Government-funded schools.
The response was:

The Government remains committed ensuring (sic) that young people have an understanding of the importance of science and the world around them.

Science is a core subject of the National Curriculum throughout every Key Stage. The National Curriculum secures for all pupils, irrespective of background and ability, an entitlement to a range of areas of learning. Its aim is to develop the knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes necessary for each pupil's self-fulfilment and development as an active and responsible citizen. It makes expectations for learning and attainment explicit to pupils, parents, teachers, governors, employers and the public, and establishes national standards for the performance of all pupils. All materials that support the teaching, learning and assessment of primary and secondary education, can be found on the National Curriculum website.

The Government is aware that a number of concerns have been raised in the media and elsewhere as to whether creationism and intelligent design have a place in science lessons. The Government is clear that creationism and intelligent design are not part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study and should not be taught as science. The science programmes of study set out the legal requirements of the science National Curriculum. They focus on the nature of science as a subject discipline, including what constitutes scientific evidence and how this is established. Students learn about scientific theories as established bodies of scientific knowledge with extensive supporting evidence, and how evidence can form the basis for experimentation to test hypotheses. In this context, the Government would expect teachers to answer pupils' questions about creationism, intelligent design, and other religious beliefs within this scientific framework.

We will be publishing guidance for schools, on the way creationism and intelligent design relate to science teaching. It will be possible to ensure that the weight of scientific opinion is properly presented. The guidance will be available on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority website in due course.
Okay, that's classic bureaucratese ... but it's so much better bureaucratese than we get in this country! We should start importing the stuff!

Monday, June 25, 2007


Once Over Easy

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of the Oxford University student organization, the L'Chaim Society, and host of The Learning Channel show "Shalom in the Home," has a piece in The Jerusalem Post complaining about "scientific fundamentalists."

I participated in two debates this week, and between them learned a great deal about the nature of science and religion in our time. The first debate, on the subject of religion, was with Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and atheist, in Toronto. The second, in New York, was with a leading Jewish-Christian missionary on whether Jesus died for our sins.

What startled me was how, in the religion debate, although my adversary and I challenged each other's most sacredly held beliefs, there was no offense taken on either side. Less so was there any acrimony directed toward me from the approximately 1000 Christians who were in the audience. Religious people are by now so used to having their faith challenged that being on the defensive is no big deal.

Not so science, which has enjoyed hegemony for so long that it has become its own orthodoxy and dare never be questioned ...

After claiming that, during his time at Oxford, he and Dawkins "had become friends and he even attended Shabbat lunch at my home in Oxford," the most he can muster about Dawkins was that:

[T]he warmth of our former relationship was not in evidence as we sat waiting to be called to speak at the Idea City Convention at the University of Toronto. I detected a hardening in Dawkins' position and perhaps an inability to distinguish between religion and religious people, such that his disdain for the former led to his contempt for the latter.

That's it. Dawkins apparently wasn't friendly enough for the Rabbi's hardness detector. There is no account of any actual disdain on Dawkins' part, though the Rabbi does recount one encounter with an "angry, world-famous physicist who told me that evolution was a fact and could not be questioned" and one with another physicist who wondered aloud: "I find it curious that someone as smart as you does not believe in unaided evolution." It seems thin gruel for a pronouncement of fundamentalism among scientists.

That is especially the case considering the "arguments" the Rabbi apparently offered during his "debate" with Dawkins. Claiming that there are "massive inconsistencies in the theory of evolution," the good Rabbi proceeded to deliver himself of these long-refuted chestnuts:

Topping this miasma of misinformation was a healthy dose of condescension:

[F]rom my experience, scientists responded to these objections by saying that, given sufficient time, all evolutionary obstacles could be surmounted. Billions and billions of years of accidental evolution could surmount the seemingly impossible mathematical odds that complexity and life could evolve from an amorphous cosmic soup. ...

So, I concluded, what separates religion and science is seemingly semantics. What religion calls God science calls time.

For scientists, time had an almost divine quality and could provide for the miraculous materialization of near mathematical impossibility.

A cool attitude, a heated response to bad, or even disingenuous, arguments and a rumination on how smart people can believe stupid things hardly qualifies as "fundamentalism."

It seems like a rather measured response, in fact.

Sunday, June 24, 2007



Janet Browne is the author of this generation's definitive two-volume biography of Charles Darwin, Voyaging and The Power of Place.

Her most recent book is part of the Atlantic Monthly Press's series called Books that Changed the World, in which various books are, themselves, the subject of biographies. Darwin's Origin of Species: a Biography is the result and it is a good primer for anyone on the ...well ... origin of Darwin's great work and its effect on the man and the world at large.

While Darwin's life, travels, family life and work are, necessarily, telescoped to fit this slim volume, the story is well told and the essentials preserved. Browne's discussion of the controversies that arose during Darwin's life is a useful outline that can assist anyone wanting to delve deeper ... say with Peter J. Bowler's Evolution: The History of an Idea.

Similarly, Browne gives a good thumbnail of the controversies, both scientific and cultural, since Darwin's death:

The fierce religious controversies of earlier days were subsiding. By regarding the Bible as an allegorical text filled with spiritual meaning, it became possible for Christian believers to retain their belief in the truth of God's message while also appreciating scientific findings as a different kind of truth. Moreover, the power of the Church itself was on the wane. Many of these changes were retrospectively attributed to the Origin of Species. Honours paid to Darwin at his funeral liberally acknowledged his important role in constructing the modem frame of mind.

His scientific legacy, though, was not nearly as secure. As fresh areas of research opened up in the biological sciences, and new kinds of professionals took up a wider range of problems with more sophisticated techniques, the original thesis of natural selection was modified almost beyond recognition.
Darwin's own ideas as to how evolution occurred were largely eclipsed by other systems of evolutionary thought beginning near the end of the nineteenth century and lasting into the 1940s. In particular, selection as a major force in evolution was criticized, partly as a result of a reaction against the excesses of "Social Darwinism," which owed more to Herbert Spencer than to Darwin himself, and partly as a result of greatly expanded paleontological discoveries in America which were interpreted as showing linear evolution:

The American palaeontologist Theodore Eimer claimed that evolutionary history had not taken the shape of a Darwinian branching tree but proceeded in a straight line. In his eyes, natural selection was powerless except to weed out obviously deleterious trends. A much-discussed example was that of the Irish Elk, which was thought to have become extinct because of the dramatic over-development of its antlers -- the suggestion was that the antlers had acquired a momentum of their own and eventually became a liability not an advantage.

Alpheus Hyatt, another noted fossil expert, similarly argued that adaptive trends almost always carried on beyond their usefulness. Ultimately, he said, a species would be driven to 'racial senility' and extinction.
This view, often called orthogenesis and shared by many other important paleontologists, such as Edward Drinker Cope and Henry Fairfield Osborn, had a political effect:

Such straight-line evolutionary histories, with their subtexts of inbuilt senescence or death from over-specialization, lent authoritative support to increasingly pessimistic views about the human future. Primitive cultures could now be regarded as in the 'infancy' of their development. More advanced societies might be set on lines of development that led them through the heights of civilization to corruption or decay. Those who transgressed society's conventions, such as criminals, homosexuals or the mentally deranged, could be categorized as 'throwbacks' to some racial past. ...

Whereas in Darwin's day eugenics was mainly expressed in fears about the maintenance of biological fitness, in the early twentieth century it expanded through Europe and the Americas into significant political movements seeking to change government policy with public health measures for the masses, birth control and enforced restraint from breeding. At root, the old system of Malthusian checks that Darwin had applied to biology was reapplied to political economies with compelling biological support. The poor, the deranged, the weak and diseased came to be regarded as biological burdens on society. For the good of the nation, it was said, policies should be introduced to prevent them from reproducing their kind. ...

It should be said, however, that racism and genocide predated Darwin. Nor were they solely confined to the West. Nevertheless, [post-Darwin] evolutionary views, and then the new science of genetics, gave powerful biological backing to those who wished to partition society according to ethnic difference or promote white supremacy.
Thus, claims that eugenics is an outgrowth of Darwin's theory are, at best, a hopelessly simplistic reading of history. In fact, the evils of racism and hatred of those who do not narrowly conform to social norms; the will to blame the poor and the downtrodden for their own condition; and the impetus to eliminate "the other" need no justification but will merely take whatever there may be at hand.

Brown also sketches the history of creationism up to the present. After telling the tale of "Creation Science," she ends with the latest in a long line of attacks:

Intelligent Design does not generally refute evolution but suggests that some biological processes are far too complex to have originated in the step-by-step manner proposed by Darwin. ... This is basically the old argument as put forward by William Paley or Asa Gray, brought up to date with new examples.

The new millennium has consequently begun with Westerners as divided as ever over the implications of a natural origin of species. Despite these challenges, the modern synthesis stands firm at the heart of biological science. ... History seldom tells of simple triumphant advances, but it can tell of the extraordinary impact of a single book. While many of the ideas and themes addressed by Darwin in 1859 were not new, and his writing style was mild in the extreme, the Origin of Species was clearly a major publishing event that spectacularly altered the nature of discussion on the question of origins. ... Old texts are frequently remade by new forms of attention, and it appears that Darwin's Origin was both resilient in the survival of its main proposals and malleable in the hands of its devotees. His book can therefore be seen, not as a solitary voice deliberately defying the traditions of the Church or the moral values of society, but as one of the hubs of transformation in Western thought.
Browne's case for the importance of the Origin is well made.


God Speaking

Some quotes from Barack Obama's keynote speech before the United Church of Christ's synod:

Doing the Lord's work is a thread that's run through our politics since the very beginning. And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America -- a principle we all must uphold and that I have embraced as a constitutional lawyer and most importantly as a Christian -- means faith should have no role in public life.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and faith started being used to drive us apart.

Faith got hijacked, partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, all too eager to exploit what divides us.

At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage, school prayer and intelligent design.

I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health-care bill into law by the end of my first term as president of the United States.

Obama offered a list of alternative "matters of conscience," including raising the minimum wage, adopting universal health care, stopping genocide in Darfur, Sudan, ending the Iraq war and embracing immigration reform.
This is shaping up to be something of a stump speech aimed at the faithful and not everyone at the synod was pleased by Obama's presence:

Steven Small, a UCC member from West Boylston, Mass., said the meeting was nothing but a "Democratic pep rally."

"I don't think it's an appropriate role for such an inclusive church to showcase a candidate for the Left," said Small, a registered Republican. "What does that say to the rest of us who happen to be part of this church?"
As I've said before, those who value secular government had better listen carefully to the candidates. We're not going to get a president who will leave God outside the Oval Office, so we need to pay heed to just which God these people will bring to the presidency with them and what they think that God is telling them.

One prophet, one crusader, a century is enough.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Christian But Not Insane

That would be the United Church of Christ, which is holding its 26th General Synod at the Hartford (Connecticut) Civic Center from June 22 to June 26. Slated to speak there are Senator Barack Obama, Bill Moyers, Lynn Redgrave and Marian Wright Edelman.

As might be guessed from that speaker's list:

The UCC has long been in the forefront of progressive social justice issues. Many renowned political activists are members of the UCC, including the man who nearly single-handedly revived the Democratic Party, Howard Dean.

Perhaps most tellingly, the Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is a member. The UCC believes that religious faith should play a part in American society but not impose its will on governance.
The church's official policy includes:

[The UCC] seeks to be Multiracial, Multicultural, Open and Affirming, and Accessible to All—A Church where everyone is welcome!
The UCC was the first "mainline" Christian denomination to sanction homosexual marriage in 2005 and was also the first to ordain openly gay ministers in 1972. It has caused controversy with some of it's TV ads, including the following, leading to their being refused by various networks.

But it was this from the author of the piece, Alan Bisbort, that drew my attention:

More Americans believe in angels than in evolution. Whether you're an atheist or a fundamentalist, ignoring the role of religion in American society, and how that shapes our political discourse, is wishful -- if not delusional -- thinking.


Update: It was totally accidential that I posted the above shortly after PZ Myers posted the exact opposite end of the spectrum (in spades!). PZ's right, of course, there is something wrong with those people!

Friday, June 22, 2007


How Beauteous Mankind Is!

PZ Myers is excited about Mark Morford's excitement about the biotechnology age that is bearing down on us with all the possibilities of a Mack truck driven by someone up three days straight on speed. Among the near-term prospects are designer pets and lab-grown vaginas. The longer run is likely beyond what even the most imaginative science fiction writer can project.

Gleefully embracing the inevitability of the advance of human knowledge and decrying those who quail at the prospect, PZ asks:

Imagine if the American government had voted to censure the Wright brothers and to outlaw the internal combustion engine at the turn of the last century ...
Of course, outlawing the internal combustion engine would have been futile. But what if we had taken some time to think about its development, instead of leaving it to haphazard social forces dominated by self-interest operating in the short term? Perhaps we'd have fewer than 50,000 highway deaths a year, blue instead of brown skies, an economy that wasn't an oiloholic subject to political blackmail and a planet not on the brink of a deadly fever.

I'm no Luddite. And the President's veto of the stem cell research bill is wrong on many levels. But I happened to read the following shortly after coming across PZ's ode to technological triumphalism. It comes from the excellent book, The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History by Marjorie Grene and David Depew (p. 346):

[U]ltra-Darwinian versions of natural selection, which ascribe a good deal of causal agency to "selfish" genes ... have done little to disturb, and indeed much to encourage, what is at root a technological vision of the living world. Natural selection is seen as mixing and matching genes in the spirit of a genetic engineer who uses a computer to model what [Daniel] Dennett calls "searches through design space." Dobzhansky's famous remark that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" is well taken. But in recent decades, Dobzhansky's maxim has been given a twist. Rather than appealing to the contingencies of the evolutionary process as a constraint on Promethean ambitions -- eugenics in Dobzhansky's day, "designer babies" in ours -- evolution is now being asked by those who have construed natural selection as a designing biotechnician to bless the transition to the coming age of biotechnology. In the resulting biotechnological vision, the inherently complex relationships among genes, traits, fitness, and diverse environments is displaced by the homogenizing, standardizing, "quality control" tendencies on which genetic engineering depends, and which it is explicitly aimed at producing and reproducing. It is no doubt true that we are entering into an era in which genetic medicine can be expected to do a great deal of good. But genetic medicine will not, we suspect, be able to achieve its promise so long as it is seen as licensed by a simplistic, utopian (or, depending on your point of view, dystopian) view of organisms as technological objects ...
Surely there must be something between Morford's prescription that we strive merely for "nimbleness, lightness, a sly and knowing grin to go with your wine and your vibrator" and the grim attempt to hold back Canute's tide.

If not, be afraid ... be very afraid.


Black Holes Down the Drain?

Physicist Lawrence Krauss, well known for his activities against the attempts to inject Intelligent Design creationism into the Ohio public school system, along with Case Western Reserve colleagues, are trying to show, in a paper accepted for publication in Physical Review D, that black holes can't form. The paper is an attempt to solve a paradox posed as a result of a proposal by physicist Stephen Hawking. To begin with:

[A black hole is] a point in space where gravity grows infinitely strong. At a particular distance from the center of the hole -- called the event horizon -- gravity is already so strong not even light can escape. So material falls in never to be seen again. ...

In 1974, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking showed that thanks to quantum mechanics matter can escape black holes in a tricky way. By random chance, a particle-antiparticle pair can flit into existence straddling the event horizon. One partner falls into the hole, while the other just barely makes it free. Because of this effect, dubbed Hawking radiation, a black hole slowly evaporates, so that anything that enters is eventually released over billions or even trillions of years.
Krauss and his fellow authors

... have constructed a lengthy mathematical formula that shows, in effect, black holes can't form at all. The key involves the relativistic effect of time, Krauss explains. As Einstein demonstrated in his Theory of General Relativity, a passenger inside a spaceship traveling toward a black hole would feel the ship accelerating, while an outside observer would see the ship slow down. When the ship reached the event horizon, it would appear to stop, staying there forever and never falling in toward oblivion. In effect, Krauss says, time effectively stops at that point, meaning time is infinite for black holes. If black holes radiate away their mass over time, as Hawking showed, then they should evaporate before they even form, Krauss says. It would be like pouring water into a glass that has no bottom.
Needless to say, unanimity has not struck the scientific community in a single stroke. One issue is, if black holes don't exist, why do they seem to be everywhere?

Krauss replies, "How do you know they're black holes?" No one has actually seen a black hole, he says, and anything with a tremendous amount of gravity--such as the supermassive remnants of stars--could exert effects similar to those researchers have blamed on black holes. ...

Not so fast, says astronomer Kimberly Weaver of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. ... [T]he problem is "we have never observed any events that would back this up." At the site of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, for example, she says astronomers routinely observe what looks like interstellar material disappearing without a trace. Also, no one has yet detected Hawking radiation, which would be prerequisite evidence for black hole evaporation, Weaver says.
This doesn't sound like an issue that is going to disappear anytime soon.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Sun Worship

The 63rd edition of the Skeptics' Circle is up and running at Relatively Science.

Since today is the Summer Solstice (for us Northern Hemisphere bigots) as of 18:06 GMT, it's as good a time as any to get naked and dance in circles in the grass.

And if you happen to know some comely young ladies ... oh, heck, young men as well ... who are interested, please leave their names and addresses in the comments!

If that don't turn you into a skeptic, nutin' will!


Uh Oh, Canada

Hey! We beat out somebody other than Turkey! The U.S. also beat out ... Ontario!

According to an Angus Reid poll of 1,088 adults conducted on June 12th and 13th, only 51 per cent of Onterioians ... Onteriotes ... Onterioists ... whatever ... believe that "human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years," while a whopping 53% of Americans do. I know one Onterionite who might be a tad displeased about this ... if you count partially chewed three-penny nails as "a tad."

Over all, however, we 'Merkins lose out to the 51st State by 59% to 53%. But they have nothing much to brag about:

Even those who say they believe in evolution may be confused about what that means exactly. The poll found 42 per cent of Canadians agree that dinosaurs and humans co-existed on earth - but evolutionary theory says non-avian dinosaurs died out about 60 million years before humans evolved in their current form.

"Wow. Oh boy," responded Pam Willoughby, an anthropology professor at the University of Alberta. "We're obviously not getting our message across."
Misery loves company.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Belated Birthday!

I can't believe I missed your birthday!

Happy 20th, Edwards v. Aguillard!

It was June 19, 1987 that the Supreme Court handed down the decision that definitively ruled that the teaching of "Creation Science" in public schools was a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Of course, that was also the day that creationists began plotting what was to become "Intelligent Design." As we know thanks to Barbara Forrest's testimony at the Kitzmiller trial, if not on that very day, it was soon after that the publishers of Of Panda's and People, still the only ID "textbook," began to simply replace "creationism" with "Intelligent Design." As Judge Jones summed up the evidence:

... Pandas went through many drafts, several of which were completed prior to and some after the Supreme Court's decision in Edwards, which held that the Constitution forbids teaching creationism as science. By comparing the pre and post Edwards drafts of Pandas, three astonishing points emerge: (1) the definition for creation science in early drafts is identical to the definition of ID; (2) cognates of the word creation (creationism and creationist), which appeared approximately 150 times were deliberately and systematically replaced with the phrase ID; and (3) the changes occurred shortly after the Supreme Court held that creation science is religious and cannot be taught in public school science classes in Edwards. This word substitution is telling, significant, and reveals that a purposeful change of words was effected without any corresponding change in content ...
So, while your birth was accompanied by bad actions by some, we're still really glad you're here!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


As Science Does

Michael Egnor is over at the Discovery Institute's Ministry of Misinformation dragging out the bones of one of its favorite examples of sophistry to carry 'round the public square in the reliquary of ID's intellectual pretentious: If scientists say that ID has been scientifically disproven, that means that it must have been a scientific proposition in the first place. If ID is not science, then the scientists' claim that it is false must be the result of some sort of non-scientific analysis.

This time, the long dead trope involves an editorial in Nature (only available in full by subscription) that takes Senator Sam Brownback to task for his attempt to cast evolutionary theory as "atheistic theology posing as science." The editorial points out that the way we think reflects our evolutionary ancestry every bit as much as much as does the way our limbs are articulated, our immune system deals with viruses and our eyes process light. In turn, the way we think "reflects not just cultural training, but also biological evolution." Acknowledging that our current theorizing about the specifics may be wrong, the editors nonetheless conclude:

... its basis in the idea that human minds are the product of evolution is not atheistic theology. It is unassailable fact.
It is that conclusion that Egnor alleges demonstrates that ID is science. The obvious first question is whether we really need to elevate astrology (à la Michael Behe) to science in order to say science has debunked it?

Jerry Coyne, in his article "Intelligent Design: - The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name" in Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement (2006), pp. 3-23, responds to this argument well. First he points out:

The theory of intelligent design oscillates between two poles that I will call the "weak" and "strong" forms. The weak form is how advocates of ID present their views in court, and the strong form is what most IDers really believe and admit to religious audiences ... The weak form of ID is untestable and tautological, while the strong form is testable in part and false. Both forms criticize neo-Darwinism for supposed flaws, but these criticisms have been shown to be misguided.
He then goes on to explain:

The weak form of ID consists of four assertions: First, some features of organisms don't just appear designed but were designed by an intelligent agent. Second, these features are "irreducibly complex" -- that is, they could not have evolved in a stepwise fashion with each step conferring an adaptive advantage, so they cannot be the result of natural selection. Third, other features did evolve by natural selection; organisms are mixtures of some traits that were produced by intelligent design and others that evolved by natural selection. And fourth, nothing is known or can be known about the nature of the designer or the designer's goals and methods.
But does the weak form of ID qualify as science?

Consider first the evidence. If any truly "irreducibly complex" adaptations exist, then any adaptations that could not have evolved just by natural selection are obvious candidates for design. Using this strategy, IDers can then point to any adaptation whose evolution we do not yet understand and deem this to be "proof' of design. (This is what Richard Dawkins, elsewhere ... calls "the argument from personal incredulity.") But many structures that creationists once thought irreducibly complex -- the vertebrate eye; the mammalian jaw; even that superannuated poster child of ID, the bacterial flagellum -- now have a scientific explanation. The argument from irreducible complexity boils down to the obvious fact that such features are always unexplained until they have been explained.
As to being subject to scientific testability:

Weak ID asserts that organisms contain a mixture of traits, some designed and some evolved. The designer is not limited to irreducibly complex traits; he, she, or they could have created any trait, even those that look as if they had evolved. Add to that the further declaration that the designer's motives and methods (and, indeed, even attitude and mental capacities) are unknown, and anything goes!
As William Dembski has said, "design can accommodate all the results of Darwinism." It can, indeed, accommodate all the results of science. While Dembski denies the implication, the simple truth is that there is nothing that can show ID is wrong for the basic reason that any unknown agent with unknown powers and unknown motives can, like the omnipotent God the "Designer" is standing in for, literally be used to explain anything and everything. Therefore, it explains nothing.

As to the strong form of ID:

[It] shares the first three assertions of weak ID but reverses the fourth and makes some additional claims. According to strong ID, the identity of the designer is not a mystery. ... He is very definitely identified as the Christian God. Moreover we do know something about the designer's characteristics and methods. He is intelligent, naturally, and being the Christian God, also wise and benevolent, generally bestowing on organisms the best possible features. ...

As for those cases of poor design, they can be attributed to the biblical fall of man. It's hard to believe that IDers think features like our appendix can be traced back to the misdemeanors of Adam and Eve, but it's true. ...

As for the designer's methods-why, miracles, of course! In strong ID, the mechanism for producing designed features is explicitly supernatural. ... But how are these miracles supposed to take place? Without an answer, ID lacks any mechanistic basis comparable to neo-Darwinism's natural selection. In any case, neither this tenet nor the previous three are scientific claims; they are theological suppositions that cannot be tested.
That is enough to show that this version of ID is not science. But, as Coyne points out, strong ID also makes four claims that have been scientifically debunked: the "abrupt appearance" of organisms in the fossil record, the limitation of evolution, particularly H. sapiens, to change within "kinds," the unknowability of the age of the Earth (particularly when young-Earth creationists are being wooed to the "big tent") and the supposed inability of natural selection to build complex organisms.

Thus, while at its heart ID is structurally unscientific, in its attempts to drape itself in science's mantle ID makes claims about the world that can be shown to be scientifically false.

Ultimately, ID's central claim is an argumentum ad ignorantium without any positive evidence in its favor. Stephen Meyer's article "Not by chance," is regularly trotted out by the DI as an example of positive evidence for a designer, but it contains no such evidence at all. In point of fact, Meyer's contentions are a classic argument from ignorance layered over what Judge Jones rightly called in his decision in Kitzmiller a "contrived dualism":

1) "Either life arose as the result of purely undirected material processes or a guiding intelligence played a role."

2) There is an "appearance of design."

3) This appearance is "unexplained by the mechanism -- natural selection -- that Darwin specifically proposed to replace the design hypothesis."
The only "positive evidence" the article advances can be summed up in this analogy from Meyer:

DNA functions like a software program. We know from experience that software comes from programmers.

Indeed, Casey Luskin has defined ID itself in those very terms:

Luskin said the media often misidentifies intelligent design. He offered this definition: It's "a scientific theory that says some aspects of nature are best explained by an intelligent cause because they are identical to objects we commonly know were designed by human intelligence."

And yet no evidence, peer-reviewed or otherwise, has ever been offered to show that this analogy is coherent on its own terms, much less that it holds in the case of biology. Unsupported and unsupportable analogies do not constitute science. It's disguised philosophy at best, dishonest theology at worst.

To paraphrase a well-known critical bon mot: "what is scientific about ID has been falsified; what hasn't been falsified is not scientific."

Monday, June 18, 2007


Thrifty With the Truth?

As part of a review, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) is considering including Intelligent Design Creationism in its science course curriculum:

Intelligent design (ID) is one of a wide range of theories of origin currently taught as part of the Religious, Moral and Philosophy Studies (RMPS) SQA course, but could be moved elsewhere as part of the review. A spokesman for the SQA said: "It happens to sit in RMPS just now. If and when it does becomes part of the curriculum for science, which it may well do as part of this review, then that's where it could sit."
The reaction of at least some professional educators seems less than outraged:

Alastair Noble is an educational consultant who has been invited by both denominational and non- denominational secondary schools to present ID on a scientific basis. He said: "I gauge a growing level of interest from pupils and teachers. My guess is that the (TiS) DVDs are being used by a small but significant number of teachers."

"It deserves formal consideration. It presents a scientific challenge to the construct that the world is the result of blind and purposeless forces."

Ian Fraser, director of education for Inverclyde, is not in favour of prohibiting Truth in Science material and accepts teachers are free to present ID informally. He said: "I have no objection to intelligent design being advanced as one theory, but most teachers don't have time. I trust head teachers to make their own decisions about what is appropriate." ...

An education spokeswoman for the Scottish Executive said: "We're not prescriptive as to books or materials. We provide guidelines, and within those guidelines it's up to schools to decide."
While there is negative reaction from educators as well, the clearest thinking may come from a somewhat surprising source:

Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, made it clear intelligent design was not part of science teaching in Catholic schools. He said: "There is a distinction between what is appropriate for religious education and what is appropriate for science. We wouldn't confuse one with the other."

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Call Forwarding

Senator Barack Obama, currently a Democratic candidate for President, gave the keynote speech before the Iowa United Church of Christ Statewide Conference and explained that, although the household he grew up in was not particularly religious, he joined the United Church of Christ as a young man working as a community organizer in Chicago's South Side, because he felt that without a church he would "remain apart and alone." He claims that "he heard God beckoning him on the day he affirmed his faith in the United Church of Christ decades ago."

That calling, he told a Fort Dodge audience, propelled him to go beyond Sunday worship and to do what he believes is God's work for the poor, the sick and those being released from prison.
The senator went on to accuse some evangelical Christians of using religion as a wedge to divide people:

"Somehow, somewhere along the way faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart," he said. "It got hijacked. Part of it's because of the so-called leaders of the Christian right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us. At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage, school prayer and intelligent design."

Obama said the Christian Coalition once identified "tax cuts for the rich" as its No. 1 legislative priority.

"I don't know what Bible they're reading," he said. "It doesn't jive [sic] with my version."
I have nothing particular to say about Obama's beliefs except to comment that they are a distinct improvement over those of the likes of James Dobson or George Bush. It seems we are bound to get a politician willing to loudly proclaim his or her religious beliefs as president. Unlike those who think that those politicians' stated beliefs on, say, religion versus science are somehow irrelevant to their fitness for office, I think the last six years has shown us quite the contrary. Bush thought God was telling him to turn Iraq into a horrible quagmire that will sap the strength of America for a generation or more.

We need to listen to these people and make sure we know what God they think is whispering in their ear and how good their hearing is.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


May Polls

According to the Christian Post, a new USA Today/Gallup Poll shows that only 31 percent of Americans agree that President Bush should veto the legislation to ease government restrictions on funding embryonic stem cell research that Congress recently passed, while 60 percent feel he should not.

Even among Republicans opposition to stem cell research is weakening. In the recent poll, 45 percent of Republicans said the government should lessen restrictions on federally funding stem cell research, compared to 2004 and 2005 when only about a third of Republicans supported easing the ban.


A Gallup survey in May on values and beliefs found that 64 percent of Americans believe "medical research using stem cell obtained from human embryos" is morally acceptable, while 30 percent said it is morally wrong.
Will reality ever rear it ugly head in George Bush's presence?


Fair Play

The history of European colonialism is, in major respects, the history of the expansion of Christianity into the largest religion in the world. It seems the world is getting a bit of its own back.

[M]illions of European missionaries traveled to other continents to spread their faith by establishing schools and churches. Now, with European church attendance at all-time lows and a dearth of preachers in the pulpits, thousands of "reverse missionaries" are flocking back, migrating from poor countries to rich ones to preach the Gospel where it has fallen out of fashion.

The phenomenon signals a fundamental shift in the power, style and geography of the world's largest religion. Most of Christianity's more than 2 billion adherents now live in the developing world. And as vast numbers of them migrate to Europe, they are filling pews and changing worship styles.

Thousands of missionaries from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, South Korea and the Philippines have come to Europe to set up churches in homes, office buildings and storefronts.
The missionaries are not affecting only their fellow immigrants. Danish sea captain Stendor Johansen has also rediscovered a more vibrant faith:

"The Danish church is boring," said Johansen, 45, who left the state-run Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church three years ago and joined this high-octane interdenominational church run by a missionary pastor from Singapore. "I feel energized when I leave one of these services." ...

"As kids, we were not allowed to make any noise on Sundays," he said. The church seemed to him to place a higher value on order and ancient traditions than on tending to the concerns of parishioners. "The church didn't add any value to me. It gave me nothing I could use in my day-to-day life."
Bess Serner-Pedersen, who runs Alpha Denmark, a private group that offers adult courses in the basics of Christianity makes the point that

... since the 18th-Century Enlightenment, which stressed reason and science as means of understanding the divine, European religious teaching has focused more on the intellectual than on the spiritual.

"We have a country where the churches are talking to the mind, but we've forgotten that spirituality is about the heart as well," she said. "Our population is looking for churches that are more alive. We need these immigrant churches because they are bringing a message that we have forgotten."
Even officials of the state church agree:

Karsten Nissen, one of the country's 10 Lutheran bishops, said that a quarter to a third of all people in church in Copenhagen any given Sunday morning are attending a foreign-run service. "These churches are a gift to our Danish Lutheran Church," Nissen said. "They open our eyes to a more human way of being Christians. It's the way we were Christians 100 years ago — a very simple way, a good way, a more pious way, and a more open and happy way of worship."
Of course, not all the missionaries come from the Third World:

U.S. Ambassador James Cain said that shortly after he and his family arrived in Denmark in 2005, they went to a scheduled Sunday service at a Danish Lutheran church and they found the door padlocked. ...

Cain said Denmark's lack of religious culture was partly to blame for last year's Muhammad cartoons controversy, in which a Danish paper published unflattering caricatures of Islam's most revered prophet, touching off Muslim fury worldwide.

"That, for the first time in a generation, caused the Danes to realize that their loss of faith and their increasing secularism made it very difficult for them to understand, or even feel empathy for, people who felt offended by caricatures of religious images," Cain said.
The irony of that issuing from an official of an Administration whose foreign policy boils down to a count of how many times the word "Islamofascist" can be repeated per paragraph of press release is almost too great to bear.

As for the larger lesson, Richard Dawkins calls religion a mind virus. Viruses evolve.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Loving You

It seems incredible that today is only the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 case that struck down laws against "miscegenation," the intermarriage of people of different "races."

Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars has put up a copy of a statement released for the occasion by Mildred Loving who, with her late husband Richard Loving -- surely the most cosmically named plaintiffs in any lawsuit -- brought down one of the last officially racist policies in this country. The dignity of her words and her quiet affirmation of the right of people to freely love who they choose is a lesson we obviously need to affirm again in this country.

It is also instructive to read the decision in that case, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren for a unanimous court. The facts were simple:

In June 1958, two residents of Virginia, Mildred Jeter, a Negro woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were married in the District of Columbia pursuant to its laws. Shortly after their marriage, the Lovings returned to Virginia and established their marital abode in Caroline County. At the October Term, 1958, of the Circuit Court of Caroline County, a grand jury issued an indictment charging the Lovings with violating Virginia's ban on interracial marriages. On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty to the charge and were sentenced to one year in jail; however, the trial judge suspended the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the Lovings leave the State and not return to Virginia together for 25 years.
There is more than just an echo of what that judge said in pronouncing his sentence still abroad in the land today:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
Substitute pious invocations about the certainty of God's intentions for marriage between men and women and you can easily identify the kindred spirits of that judge preaching on every street corner.

There is much that is of interest to lawyers about the application of the 14th Amendment to be found in Loving, but the bottom line is this:

Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State. (Citations omitted)
It would take the change of but a few words in that eloquent statement to right a great wrong being perpetrated throughout much of our country today. Let's hope it isn't another 40 years before we can truly say that we give every citizen of this land all the basic civil rights of man.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Feel Good Politics

Talk about your counterintuitive results!

According to this story in New Scientist, new research shows that paying taxes feels good.

Bill Harbaugh at the University of Oregon in Eugene, US, and colleagues gave 19 female university students $100, and told them some of this money would have to go towards taxes.
Given 60 separate taxation scenarios involving $0 to $45 to be deducted from the $100, the volunteers'

. . . brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Surprisingly, whenever the students read the taxation scenarios, scientists saw a spike in activity within two of the brain's reward centres – the nucleus accumbens and caudate nucleus.

Harbaugh says that people probably like paying taxes more than they admit. He believes the results of his new study help explain the widespread compliance with tax laws. "We like to complain about it, but based on what we do, we are not as opposed to it as we like to say," Harbaugh says.
Harbaugh then ran the experiment again where, instead of the money being given in taxation, the volunteers were given scenarios about donations to charity the participants could choose. On the reruns, Harbaugh was able to predict a subject's generosity based on their brain response to paying tax.

The 10 subjects who showed the greatest brain activity in response to hypothetical taxes in the first part of the study later chose to donate money twice as often as the other nine subjects.

At the end of the experiment, those whose brains responded more positively to tax-paying generally gave about $17 to charity, while the other nine subjects gave $10, on average.
Gee . . . rich people often seem to enjoy giving to charity. Maybe our government could do them a good turn and increase their pleasure by undoing the tax rate reductions on the highest incomes that the Republicans have been torturing those . . . um . . . unfortunate people with.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


More Than a Sandwich

I think people divide the world up and depending on what they believe, they see either troublemakers or heroes. But I don’t think that’s right. I think that’s just what an American citizen is -— participating in democracy and protecting what you believe in your heart.

So says Matthew LaClair who, at 16 years old, took on a popular teacher who was abusing his position by proselytizing in class and the school board who was more than willing to sweep it under the rug and, instead, blame the messenger. Despite having the school, the school district and most of the students against him, Matt and his parents stood up to the pressure and forced a settlement from the board by which teachers and students will be instructed in proper separation of church and state, as well as in the difference between the science of evolution and the religious belief in creationism. The school board also agreed to commend Matt for his "courage and integrity."

There were times when it was really tough. When it first came out in the newspaper, and I lost a lot of my friends. But I would have felt a lot worse if I didn’t do something about it.

It may be just what an American citizen should do but that doesn't mean you aren't a hero anyway, Matt.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Apocalypse Now

Has anyone seen four guys on horseback riding by?

It has to be a sign of something when I almost agree with Casey Luskin. The Discovery Institute's chief gofer is out in the electronic pages of its Whine and Jeez blog, making yet another complaint about ID not getting' no respect. This time, under the probability quirk that guarantees that even blind pigs get the occasional acorn, Luskin actually has something approaching a valid complaint.

His kvetch this trip is about the recent law review article, entitled "Evolution and the Holy Ghost of Scopes: Can Science Lose the Next Round?" by Stephen A. Newman, a law professor at New York Law School, that appeared in the Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion. You can download the article at the Social Science Research Network's site, a fact that Luskin inexplicably omitted.

Luskin all but ignores the bulk of the article, focusing instead on a few paragraphs about the attempt by ID supporters, back in 2000, to get Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe and Darwin on Trial by Philip Johnson into a Minnesota public high school library. After considerable effort, the attempt was blocked. Specifically, Luskin complains:
[W]e're not talking about making Darwin's Black Box or Darwin on Trial part of the required curriculum. We're simply talking about donating books to a library so students can have access to information about a controversial scientific and social issue over how life began.
Well, that's not quite how the librarians tell the tale, which can be found in their article, "Monkey Business: The intelligent design war has come to the school library," in the School Library Journal.

According to the article, the district had a policy concerning gifts of books to school libraries that required that all donations intended for instructional use must meet three selection criteria:

1) They must support the curriculum;
2) They must receive favorable reviews from professional journals; and
3) They must be age-appropriate.
Needless to say, the books were found by the librarians to have failed those tests. What is confusing in the librarians' tale is that they say:

At the time, we didn’t realize that the motive behind the parent’s book donations was to include intelligent design in the science curriculum.
If that was the case, just what does "instructional use" mean and why are the above standards being applied? Why couldn't the books be accepted with the understanding that they would not be used for instruction or otherwise be part of the curriculum?

Luskin's citation to the Supreme Court case of Board of Educ. v. Pico (more commonly known as the Island Trees case) is not particularly helpful (since that case resulted in seven different opinions) other than as a basic statement that school board control of school libraries is not totally unfettered.

I am more concerned with good educational policy anyway, rather than whatever right IDeologists may have to force the books onto school property. Perhaps I am over-optimistic but I don't think either book is beyond an intelligent high school student's understanding. And the rest of the criteria don't seem relevant if the books aren't being used in science classes. Bad ideas are rampant and, in any case, mostly in the eye of the beholder. Do I get to keep postmodernism out of high school libraries because it is obvious (to me) nonsense? Young adults can hardly be protected from such things and it's not really the duty of public schools to make the attempt. Schools can rightly exclude ID from science classes or properly categorize ID as a religious concept while teaching it in a comparative religion, civics or even philosophy of science course. But banning ID from a library betrays the very point of having one, it seems to me.

That much said, Luskin could not resist the temptation to make a fool of himself. First of all he actually grouses about the National Academy of Sciences' statement about ID by noting that its "biologist membership, keep in mind, is ~95% atheists and agnostics." Of course, the only reason that would be in the least relevant is if ID is a religious concept that atheists and agnostics might be "biased" against. But don't forget, folks! ID is all about the science and doesn't have anything to do with God or religion, nosiree!

The other inanity Luskin perpetrates is his dismissal of the rest of Professor Newman's article as "water-cooler speculation" about how the changes in the Supreme Court might affect future cases. The DI has every reason to hope that no one, least of all the faithful, reads the article because it is a well researched history of creationist attempts to circumvent the Constitution that leaves little doubt that ID is just the latest ploy in that long battle.

Instead of engaging in "water-cooler speculation," Professor Newman carefully analyzes past cases to make a professional assessment of likely influences on the present Court. Of particular use is a detailed inspection of the underpinnings of Justice Scalia's dissent in Edwards v. Aguillard, its weaknesses and faults, that may help dissuade other Justices, particularly Justice Kennedy, the most likely "swing vote" in any such case, from adopting Scalia's plan to gut the Establishment clause.

Doubtless it was the "careful analysis" that led Luskin, totally unfamiliar with the concept as all IDeologists are, to fail to appreciate the Professor's article.

For anyone who wants to better understand where we are in the fight to preserve science education in this country and what direction we are likely heading, Professor Newman's article is highly recommended.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Ham Handed

Well, the above, which comes from Answers in Genesis' new monument to ignorance (via Blue Grass Roots), has certainly convinced me.

The collective learning of the entire human race throughout history on one side and the written down musings of Bronze Age shepherds on the other. No brainer.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Pinkies Up!

The 62nd Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle is putting on a Show That Never Ends!

Yes, after years – decades, in some cases – of hard work, battling many well-funded enemies who have repeatedly tried to hide the truth, we have finally been able to reveal to one and all what THEY were so desperate to keep hidden.
There is a museum visit in the offing ... no, not that one!

But one thing is sure ... Polite Company need not apply.


Of Two Minds

As is not unusual with Americans when faced with contentious opposing view points, they punt. A recent USA Today/Gallup Poll has results that are seemingly contradictory.
Apparently arising out of the controversy over the questioning of presidential candidates on their beliefs on evolution, the poll asked the respondents if they thought that:

Evolution, that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life


Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years


Somehow a significant number of people manage to think that both propositions are true. Perhaps the solution to this seeming contradiction lies in the notion that protohumans were developing over millions of years from less advanced forms of life only to be "finished" pretty much in their present form at one point within the last 10,000 years.

Geoffrey Layman, a politics and religion expert at the University of Maryland, says people are trying to reconcile science and religion. "They might believe the science, or they might see the science as hard to dismiss, and they don't necessarily take Genesis to be literal," he says. "But they do think that God played some role in directing this evolutionary process."

On the other hand, it may just be that the respondents are lying:

How familiar would you say you are with evolution

Very........what......Not too...Not at all..No........Totally..Totally

There is no way that even a fraction of those numbers of Americans are remotely familiar with evolutionary theory. But maybe it is just a result of the fact that incompetent people often do not know that they are incompetent.


Oh, and for the politicians ... only 15% of the population would be somewhat or much more likely to vote for an evolution-denying candidate, while 29% would be somewhat or much more likely to vote against them.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


A Tale of Two Polities

John Wilkins recently noted that the Fatal Shore's Catholic prelate had picked up a tactic, used by some American bishops, of threatening politicians who are Catholics with exclusion from communion if they voted in favor of public policy that the Church disapproves of. In America the attempted coercion was over abortion. In Australia, George Cardinal Pell is twisting arms to try to derail stem cell research.

The difference is in the reaction of the politicians. In the U.S. there was generally quiet defiance with, at most, a rebuttal from the politician to the religious diktat with an almost equally pious statement about duty to all voters and individual conscience.

Not so the Aussies:

It sounded like a threat and that's how many Catholic MPs — Labor and Liberal, state and federal — treated it.

They resented the intrusion of religion into politics, one saying he would prefer to burn in hell and another comparing Cardinal Pell to the widely denounced Muslim cleric Sheik Taj Aldin Alhilali.
To get a flavor of what aspersions were being cast, the Sheik has accused Jews of "causing all wars," described the September 11 terrorist attacks as "God's work against oppressors," denied the holocaust as a "Zionist lie," likened immodestly dressed women to "uncovered meat" tempting cats, criticized as "excessive" prison sentences handed out to Lebanese-Australian Muslim rapists, claimed Muslims have more right to Australia than Anglo-Saxon "convicts" and has denounced Australian gay rights legislation as "freedom to the point of insanity."

That's way more than any American pol would dare, as can be seen in the fawning the presidential contenders of both parties have been giving religious voters here of late, but the following would be unthinkable:

Labor MP Tony Stewart said he would go to hell rather than vote against a bill which stands to benefit thousands of victims of spinal cord injury, motor neurone disease, Parkinson's disease and juvenile diabetes.

"Maybe I'll go to hell but if I go to hell I'm going to do so by saving a lot of lives, because that's what this bill is about," said Mr Stewart, a Catholic.

"We don't need a religious leader telling members of parliament what should be done."

Emergency Services Minister Nathan Rees accused Cardinal Pell of "emotional blackmail" and said his statement was "a clear and arguably contemptuous incursion" into the deliberations of MPs.

"I think he's got three options — he can apologise, he can run for Parliament or he can invite further comparisons with that serial boofhead, Sheik Alhilali."

Premier Morris Iemma bridled at any suggestion that Cardinal Pell could refuse him communion.

"He won't be dissuading me from doing what I believe is the right thing," he said.

"This is no time to stand in the way of science and thus stand in the way of hope."
I particularly liked "serial boofhead." Do you suppose we could import some Oznian politicians? They might not be any better but they'd sure be more entertaining.

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