NTS LogoSkeptical News for 25 November 2008

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Intelligent Design and Evolution


Written by Selwyn Duke
Tuesday, 25 November 2008 00:16

Believers in Intelligent Design have often been scorned as being opposed to science, but science itself is showing that it is the evolutionists who are opposed to rational inquiry.

Though The New American has no official position on evolution, we have published a number of articles over the years pointing to flaws in the theory and arguing for academic freedom on the subject. We did this most recently in "Allow Intelligence" (May 12, 2008 issue), our very favorable review of Ben Stein's documentary Expelled. In the following article, Selwyn Duke suggests that it's possible to believe in both an evolution of sorts (though not Darwinism) and Intelligent Design, though he does not stake out a position in favor of evolution. We publish it here as food for thought. — Ed.

While the debate over evolution in schools has been developing for many years in a primordial soup of passion, generally speaking, it hasn't reached a very high level of complexity. The opponents of Intelligent Design Theory (ID) tend to dismiss its advocates as serpent-handling dogmatists who make a sport of spitting on Galileo's grave, while some at the opposite end of the spectrum may portray anyone entertaining evolution in any context as the serpent in Eden.

But what is often overlooked in this debate — so much so that it may surprise some people — is that not all those who entertain ID are religious. As an example, consider New York University law and philosophy professor Thomas Nagel, an avowed atheist who wrote an essay entitled "Public Education and Intelligent Design." In it he makes the case for including ID in school curricula, writing:

The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it is, has resulted in a counterorthodoxy, supported by bad arguments, and a tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory.... It would be unfortunate if the Establishment Clause made it unconstitutional to allude to these questions [concerning problems with evolution] in a public school biology class, for that would mean that evolutionary theory cannot be taught in an intellectually responsible way.

The professor points out a truth, that religious people don't have a monopoly on dogmatism. Yet he understates the matter. In point of fact, today it is the case that evolutionists are the most stubborn of dogmatists. I say this because while there are many religionists who will consider that evolution may be the vehicle through which God created life, very few evolutionists will consider that God might have created evolution. The reason for this has great bearing on the matter of evolution in schools and will be discussed later. First, however, I would like to delve into the perspective that allows a Christian to entertain evolution. That is, evolution in a certain sense.

As a man of faith, I firmly believe God created life. Yet believing He worked a certain miracle is not synonymous with knowing how He worked it. In fact, if you read the Bible, there is little if any explanation of the "how," only the "what." For instance, the New Testament tells us that Jesus turned water into wine, not how he did it. And for good reason. As evangelist Pat Robertson once said when referring to the origin-of-life debate, "Genesis was never intended as a science textbook." (This, of course, applies to the whole of Scripture.) Now, while Robertson is a contemporary figure, this view is nothing of the sort; it is in fact the traditional Christian position. In his piece "Does the Bible Teach Science?" medieval studies scholar and creator of an award-winning "Science and faith" course Dr. Robert J. Schneider explains:

From the early years of the Christian church until the beginning of the seventeenth century, the most respected theologians who thought about and wrote on the nature of biblical inspiration and authority and also about the doctrine of creation held a common position about the relationship between the Bible and science. In the early seventeenth century, Cardinal Baronius expressed this principle succinctly:

"The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." (quoted in Galileo 186)

Baronius had the conflict over the Copernican theory in mind. He was challenging the argument that this theory must be wrong because the Bible teaches that the sun moves, not the earth (e.g., Josh 10:13, Ps. 19:6; 96:10). Baronius' statement is fully in accord with the perspective of those who developed the classic Christian theology of creation (essay II). Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin were one in their conviction that Christ is the center of Scripture, and that what the Holy Spirit through Scripture means to teach is the message of salvation through Christ. The Bible's teachings about God and the Christian life may be confidently accepted as completely true and trustworthy.

I would echo Baronius and also say, the Bible is there to teach us how to live life, not how life came to live. Having said this, I would nevertheless like to make a case that a belief in evolution (depending on how "evolution" is defined) does not rule out faith or Intelligent Design. Note that I do not state the following definitively, but merely as food for thought.

Genesis 2:7 tells us, "Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." As for evolutionists, they say that life first arose in the primordial soup, which refers to the hot oceans of billions of years past. There doesn't seem to be much common ground between these two visions, but is that really true?

We have all seen that accelerated video footage of a flower blooming before our eyes or clouds racing across the sky. Ah, how modern technology can make the ordinary appear just a tad miraculous. Or, is it that our modernistic perception has made the miraculous seem ordinary? Regardless, let us assume for argument's sake that life evolved, that beasts ascended from the muck and man from beasts. If you then took all the Earth's history from the time it was a lifeless orb to now (some 4.5 billion years according to expert opinion), and accelerated it so that the "evolution" would have occurred in the blink of an eye, what would you see? Among other things, would you not behold man rising from the muck and instantly coming to flower? For the human eye would not perceive the stages, only the end result. Now, isn't this at least vaguely reminiscent of Genesis' description? Could it not be said that the main difference is that the creation story provides fewer details about the process but the answer as to what — or who — initiated it?

The obvious objection to this thesis is that, whatever the impetus behind it, the development of life took a very, very long time. Yet this is without foundation, because the best of both theologians and scientists agree on a relevant point: time is an invention of man. The early Christian fathers realized long ago that God is outside of time, and Albert Einstein called time "a handy illusion." (This is why time seems to pass faster as we age; it is relative and all a matter of perception.) Thus, it is irrelevant if something happened "slowly" or "fast," as the ultimate reality is that everything is "now."

It is because of this reality about our handy illusion that the pace of a miracle is inconsequential; it is because of the reality that we are nonetheless trapped in the handy illusion that such a truth eludes us. The great philosopher G.K. Chesterton once addressed this, writing:

An event is not any more intrinsically intelligible or unintelligible because of the pace at which it moves. For a man who does not believe in a miracle, a slow miracle would be just as incredible as a swift one. The Greek witch may have turned sailors to swine with a stroke of the wand. But to see a naval gentleman of our acquaintance looking a little more like a pig every day, till he ended with four trotters and a curly tail, would not be any more soothing.... The medieval wizard may have flown through the air from the top of a tower; but to see an old gentleman walking through the air, in a leisurely and lounging manner, would still seem to call for some explanation. Yet there runs through all the rationalistic treatment of history this curious and confused idea that difficulty is avoided, or even a mystery eliminated, by dwelling on mere delay or on something dilatory in the process of things.... The ultimate question is why [things] go at all; and anybody who really understands that question will know that it always has been and always will be a religious question; or at any a rate a philosophical or metaphysical question. And most certainly he will not think the question answered by some substitution of gradual for abrupt change.

Yes, for one who does not believe in a miracle, a slow miracle would be just as incredible as a swift one. But, likewise, for those of us who do believe in miracles, a slow miracle should be no less amazing than a swift one.

Having said this, I must reiterate that my little musing regarding Genesis isn't doctrine, either a church's or my own. It's just an idea (and one that could be baseless) illustrating how evolution and faith could be compatible. As a Christian, I believe that God created man in His own image and likeness. That is doctrine. As to how He did it, I don't profess to know. But this doesn't bother me because I accept that simple fact of which all Christians need be mindful: the Bible is not a scientific treatise. If God had meant to bestow a science textbook upon us, He would have used scientists to write it, not prophets and apostles.

Yet, if there is much the Bible doesn't explain, the same can be said of evolution. (In fact, a belief in evolution requires faith, since the theory is far from proven.) For instance, the process by which life began in the primordial soup would have to be called "abiogenesis," which, as Thomas Henry Huxley said, is the "doctrine that living matter may be produced by not living matter." The idea is that amino acids formed chains and became the first proteins which, after many more evolutionary twists and turns, became the first simple organisms. And from there life continued developing and increasing in complexity. Yet this poses a question: how is it that chemicals can suddenly "decide" to become alive?

Moreover, even if they somehow did, why would they have a will to continue living and become more complex? The answer to this question is always the same and is often delivered dismissively. "It's not that simple," we hear. "There were many, many steps and the process took a very, very long time." But this is not an answer, merely a response. To accept it is to fall victim to the fallacy of which Chesterton spoke, to believe that an event is "more intrinsically intelligible or unintelligible because of the pace at which it moves."

In addition, it is also to believe that an exposition of the "steps" of what went on somehow explains the ultimate question of why things go at all. But harking back to Chesterton's example from Greek mythology, it's as if we were told that a man was transformed into a pig quite by accident, without the workings of a witch. It all supposedly makes sense, though, because, well, it took pretty dang long and we can explain the steps of the process. Would that satisfy your curiosity?

Ironically, though, while an explanation of the process (the steps) is meant to illuminate, the case may be that it actually blinds. Man can often very easily believe in a miracle precisely until the point at which it is explained, but how does this make sense? We are made in God's image and like Him possess intellect — albeit a limited one — so why should it surprise anyone that to some degree we might be able to explain how He worked His miracles? After all, as a child matures, can he not begin to understand more and more about his father's ways? A scientific explanation isn't sufficient cause to demote a thing from the miraculous to the mundane.

Then there is that very compelling argument in favor of ID, that a design implies a designer. For instance, for a long time no one could provide any firm ideas about who built the monument of Stonehenge in England. Yet did anyone propose that those ancient rocks were assembled accidentally by the forces of nature? Why, such an idea is so preposterous that it was never even considered. In fact, of all the things known to man that have a design, there is only one case where anyone would entertain the notion that there was no designer, the instance of the most amazing design of all: life.

So the question still remains, does ID belong in schools? Well, my answer is that if it does not, evolution certainly doesn't. To understand why, you only need to ponder one of the bases on which the opponents of ID disqualify it from schools. That is, it is a theological message that violates the "separation of church and state" principle. Yet if this is so, evolution is disqualified on the same basis, for it involves an atheological message. Dr. Nagel spoke of this as well, writing:

The campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design as beyond discussion because it is not science results in the avoidance of significant questions about the relation between evolutionary theory and religious belief....

From the beginning it has been commonplace to present the theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection as an alternative to intentional design as an explanation of the functional organization of living organisms. The evidence for the theory is supposed to be evidence for the absence of purpose in the causation of the development of life-forms on this planet. It is not just the theory that life evolved over billions of years, and that all species are descended from a common ancestor. Its defining element is the claim that all this happened as the result of the appearance of random and purposeless mutations in the genetic material followed by natural selection due to the resulting heritable variations in reproductive fitness. It displaces design by proposing an alternative.

And this is the point. Evolution treats not just the "what" of life's genesis and development, but also the "why"; that is to say, its explanation is that there is no why, that life is merely a cosmic accident. This is to go beyond science and to tread in — and on — the theological realm.

Pursuing the "why" is a central part of humanity's eternal religious and philosophic strivings. Thus has the question about the origin of man and his world been pondered since time immemorial, and every civilization had its creation stories. And this explains why evolutionists are those most stubborn dogmatists, people who will never, ever consider that God might have initiated and guided evolution, if indeed that's what happened. By definition, classical evolution excludes the possibility of God.

And, really, I don't sell evolutionists so short that I believe all of them are oblivious to their intrusion upon theological territory. On the contrary, I suspect that a desire to proselytize, to spread this atheological message, is precisely what fuels much of the zeal of the evolutionist movement. For we have to ask whence zeal comes. It isn't the result of cold, detached scientific curiosity but of something more reminiscent of religious fervor. And if it truly isn't quasi-religious devotion, why not just agree that schools should remain neutral on the matter, that both ID and evolution should be stricken from them? This is, after all, what we have done with other controversial issues of the day, such as abortion.

This is where evolutionists will protest that the scope of school curricula should not be limited by dogma, but this is an intellectually dishonest argument. First, students can be taught only a minuscule percentage of man's knowledge, so we must necessarily exclude most of it when devising curricula. And why should evolution be part of this extremely limited program? Have you ever been asked about fossil records during a job interview? We should realize that people who will actually pursue a career in which such study is relevant are about as rare as those who will become nuclear physicists. So if nuclear physics isn't a staple of curricula, why is evolution?

What I'm pointing out is that even insofar as evolution may be valid, people have been snookered, conditioned to accept that it enjoys status as an academic basic. But do you remember those exercises on tests in which we had to choose which element of a group was out of place? Let us try one here: math, history, English, evolution — which doesn't belong? Here some may say that it is part of science, but, again, even insofar as it may be valid, it is a specialty. It's about as relevant to the scientific studies of average schoolchildren as the origin of English is to their study of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. So, given that it has no practical application in their lives, why is there this obsession with having it in school? Because it's very practical if your goal is the promotion of a certain world view.

Then there is the sanctimony. Those who protest that a school curriculum's scope must not be limited by religious dogma will simultaneously limit it to the "secular" in the name of secular dogma. They will say that you must not place limits on where science will take you, until it takes you to the possibility that God exists. Off limits is any honest treatment of the question of what sparked life in the first place. Off limits is the interpretation of an anomaly of the natural world that a biology teacher of mine once said, with the requisite schoolhouse subtlety, pointed to the existence of a god. He was speaking of the phenomenon whereby water is the only non-metallic substance in which the solid form floats in the liquid. It impressed him so because, he averred, life could not exist were it not for the peculiarity. And even Plato would have to run afoul of the secular thought police, since he theorized that a rational god created the Universe. All these things and many other fruits of intellectual inquiry are forbidden because the line has quite tendentiously been traced around evolution and its atheological implications.

Some may say that what I've mentioned is a bit too far afield, not at all the stuff of basic school curriculum. But, as I've demonstrated, it's no less basic than evolution itself. And if evolutionists claim that integrity demands we follow intellectual inquiry wherever it takes us, why do we abandon this principle when it takes us away from evolutionary dogma? We should be just as conscientious about philosophical pursuits as scientific ones, especially when the latter tread upon and render messages about philosophical ground.

At the end of the day, though, the real issue is more fundamental than the debate over ID versus evolution. That debate is, in fact, just a front in a war. The real battle concerns truth versus agendas. We are blinded by terminology, such as "religious" and "secular" (which wasn't first recorded till 1846), and ascribe significance to it. Then we say that depending on how we label a thing, it may or may not enter the public sphere. But we don't ask the only relevant question: is it true? Moreover, if ideas in question really do come from God, the Creator of the Universe, if they are absolutely true, don't we have an obligation to instill them in children in school? Of course, this is where secularists will respond, "Well, you may be convinced they were born in Heaven, but not everyone agrees with you; some believe they are just man-made." But then I ask, if they are man-made just like secular ideas, why do you discriminate against them? Why do you say that ideas we happen to call "secular" may be in government schools, but those we happen to call "religious" may not be? If they're all man-made, wherein lies the difference? Besides, whether or not what "religious" or "secular" represents is man-made, the labels themselves — which so many attach such importance to — most certainly are.

Of course, the above perspective may be lost on "constitutional scholars" who wax Hugo Black about the First Amendment. So, while this piece hasn't directly treated the legal issues, I will make a brief statement about them. If presenting a theory indicating that life had some kind of designer — without reference to identity or sect — is "the establishment of religion," then presenting one indicating there was no designer is "prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Both claims are equally logical — and equally ridiculous.

In the final analysis, modern man's thinking hasn't evolved, but devolved. Real academic integrity consists of doggedly searching for truth, without regard for superficial labels or supercilious judges' rulings. One who does otherwise may be abiding by lexical or legal strictures, but he is in no way a thinker. He is simply a dead-end intellectual species, one that can never, ever arise from the muck and mire of its materialistic creed.

Misfolded proteins accelerate yeast evolution


Public release date: 24-Nov-2008

Contact: Cristin Carr
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (November 25, 2008) – Under stress, yeast cells can unleash a remarkable mechanism based on protein-misfolding that gives them new characteristics without requiring genetic mutations.

Researchers in Whitehead Member Susan Lindquist's lab now have shown that this mechanism is triggered much more often as the cells undergo stress, suggesting that it is tailored to play exactly this role in evolution.

The mechanism is based on a prion—a protein misfolded into an unusual configuration that can change its function within a cell.

In yeast, the [PSI+] prion is a misfolded version of the Sup35 protein, which plays a key role in how cells translate their messenger RNA molecules into proteins. Earlier studies showed that [PSI+] changes how messenger RNA translation ends, thus uncovering hidden genetic variations by creating altered proteins that change the cell.

Most of the resulting phenotypes (variants of the organism) have no effect on cell survival or make things worse. "But about a quarter of the time, the phenotypes are good," says Lindquist, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Sometimes the yeast can grow on energy sources it couldn't grow on before, or withstand antibiotics it couldn't withstand."

But was it just a coincidence, as some biologists have maintained, that yeast cells have maintained this mechanism for hundreds of millions of years? Or has it actually evolved as a way for yeast to evolve more quickly?

Since the change it induces is more commonly detrimental than beneficial, if this mechanism is really meant to accelerate evolution, it should become more common under conditions that are stressful for the cell—environments that are not suited to the cell's current phenotype. That is, Lindquist says, in situations where it is worth taking a chance.

To test this hypothesis, the scientists first examined what genes might help to induce the prion state, plowing through the entire genome of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the common baker's yeast that biologists have studied intensively for many years. Jens Tyedmers, a lead author on the paper published in PLoS Biology on November 28, tested 4700 yeast strains that each lacked one of the genes in the yeast genome, and then tested each strain's ability to create the prion.

Among the strains most successful at generating prions, "we found many genes that are basically involved in regulating the response of a cell to stress," reports Tyedmers, formerly a postdoc in the Lindquist lab and now a research project leader at the Center for Molecular Biology in Heidelberg, Germany.

With that encouragement, Maria Lucia Madariaga, another lead author on the paper, went on to do stress tests on the yeast.

"We wanted to use some conditions you would find in nature," notes Madariaga, formerly a graduate student in the Lindquist lab and now an MD candidate at Harvard Medical School. "Yeast hanging out in a vineyard are subject to heat, salt and other stresses."

After creating these tough environments in Petri dishes, the researchers saw that when the yeast cells didn't grow properly any more, they started forming the prion more often. "Some of these stresses increased prion production up to 60-fold, an unexpectedly big effect," says Madariaga.

"When things are hunky-dory, only one in a million yeast cells flips into the prion state," observes Lindquist. "But under stress, the organism isn't maintaining its protein as well, so it's more likely that it will flip into that state. The more it is stressed, the more it is likely to change to that state."

That finding helps to make the case that this mechanism aids in accelerating evolution. "It's always difficult to prove any argument about how a mechanism evolved, but this does offer a coherent logical story," she says.

Similar prion functionality appears in other species of yeast that have evolved over an 800-million-year range, Lindquist adds. "It's very hard to understand how this organism would have allowed that unless the mechanism was actually serving a useful purpose at times."

While new prion-state phenotypes can pass on their changes to their descendants, they're also quite likely to lose their prions. But if the phenotypes are successful enough, selective pressure on the organism may reveal the underlying genetic variations that gave them their talents in the first place.

Best known as the infectious agents in mad cow disease, prions also can play positive roles in biology, the scientists emphasize. "A prion is not necessarily detrimental; in yeast it can be a different way for a cell to code information," says Tyedmers.


Written by Eric Bender

Full citation:

"Prion Switching in Response to Environmental Stress"
PLoS Biology, December 25, 2008
Jens Tyedmers*†, Maria Lucia Madariaga*†‡, and Susan Lindquist†§¶
†Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, 9 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142, USA

‡ Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA, §Howard Hughes Medical Institute

*These authors contributed equally to this work.

Evolution is the Blind Watchmaker


by Nathan Tumazi
Volume 42, Issue 10 | Nov 24 2008

In "Natural Theology," Reverend William Paley put forth the most appealing and untrue argument for creationism: All living things, Paley said, are too intricately designed to have come about by blind chance. They must have had a designer, some sort of intelligence to create them. Just as watches have a watchmaker, so too must animals – including us – and plants have an intelligent maker.

To Paley, this meant God (with a capital "G"), and more specifically, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic "God." The Reverend argued that this creative God was responsible for the complexity of living things—things that were far too improbable to come about in one single step. Of course, evolutionary biologists think this argument is as reasonable as it is elegant, and they have good reason to think so. In 1859, Darwin blew this argument out of the water. Cumulative natural selection, Darwin argued, was powerful enough to explain highly improbable things: things like you and me and dinosaurs and carnivorous plants and everything else.

However, many religious people do not understand the concept of the natural origin of life and sneak in God or some other intelligent or supernatural element to explain life. They think that evolution works in one single step, that it's like wind blowing through a scrap yard and forming a perfect 747 plane from a pile of random parts. But, this isn't how evolution works at all.

In order to understand how evolution works, and why it explains all the life there is and can be, one must return to the beginning of life before evolution, to a concept scientists call abiogenesis: the forming of living matter from non-living matter.

There are many reasons to believe life began in a chemical soup, or primordial soup. The pre-biotic environment contained many fatty acids which, under a range of acidic conditions, "spontaneously" formed stable vesicles. The vesicles are permeable to small organic molecules, without the need for complex protein machinery. Metabolism and growth in such vesicles are driven purely by thermodynamics. Simply put, monomers diffuse into a fatty acid vesicle.

Monomers then spontaneously polymerize and copy any template. The polymer backbone attracts ions, increases osmotic pressure, and this pressure drives the membrane's growth at the expense of surrounding vesicles, which contain fewer polymers. These vesicles form tubule structures and are divided by purely mechanical forces in the ocean. Daughter vesicles inherit polymer vesicles from the parent vesicle. The polymer sequences that replicate faster will dominate the population, thus beginning evolution.

It is important to note that living things do not consciously evolve; they are forced to evolve because of mutations in their DNA. If genes had it their way, they would exist naked on this planet instead of inside the bodies they have built through evolution.

Creationists and their comrades in deception, proponents of "intelligent design," have no explanation for the origin of life or the complexity, diversity and improbability of it. Their only argument is that "God did it," which is a lazy cop-out that leaves them in a double bind; they then have to explain where God comes from. They basically shoot themselves in the foot because they use something complex to explain something complex, which is not an explanation at all.

Darwinism, on the other hand, is powerful enough to explain life because of its ability to deal, in simple terms, with the improbability and complexity of living things. It uses a simple rule: Random mutation and cumulative natural selection leads to gradual, incremental changes which, over long periods of time, leads to the complexity and diversity seen in living things.

For example, let's take a population of three mice – one with dark fur, one with gray fur and one with white fur – that have to survive predation by birds. For survival, the mice have only two types of rocks to hide on: dark-colored rocks and white-colored rocks. The mice with dark and white fur are going to camouflage and survive better by blending in. The gray-colored mice, however, are going to be eaten because the mutation that caused the gray color is selected against and thus will not be passed on to future generations.

Biologists now understand, more or less, how natural selection works. Genes make copies of themselves. However, replication isn't perfect and mistakes happen. Some mistakes are harmful to the organism, some are neutral and some are beneficial. The harmful mutations will be destroyed, while the beneficial mutations will spread into the population and become the new norm. Evolution is a continuous process that works in small ways to produce dramatic outcomes over time. That simple logic is something religions need to accept.

For more information, the Evolutionary Biology Club at UC Irvine meets every Wednesday at 4 p.m. in Natural Sciences II Room 4201.

Nathan Tumazi is a fourth-year international studies major and the president of the Evolutionary Biology Club. He can be reached at ntumazi@uci.edu.

It's time for education to evolve



Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Nov. 24, 2008, 11:14PM

In Pennsylvania last week, it was reported that a scientist had decoded the DNA of a woolly mammoth using a hairball found in the Siberian permafrost. Not surprisingly, the sequence was 99.4 percent equivalent to an elephant's.

Meanwhile, in Austin, the so-called State Board of Education was still debating the merits of evolution.

Forget Kansas. If we're not careful on this issue, people across the nation could soon be asking, "What's the matter with Texas?"— if they're not already.

Unlike many questions in science, the answer would be simple: the politicization of education. In January, the board is expected to take a preliminary vote on new science curriculum standards for the next decade that will shape the writing of textbooks for the state's 4.5 million students.

Some conservatives on the State Board of Education are struggling to keep science teaching standards that mention "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, a theory as basic to the teaching of science as the U.S. Constitution is to the teaching of American government.

"Strengths and weaknesses" is a new buzz phrase that's replaced "creation science" and "intelligent design," and other science curriculum labels that incorporate teachings of faith, which courts have consistently struck down.

Some evolution opponents reject the connection, saying teaching evolution's "weaknesses" or "limitations," as one current proposal suggests, is simply about fairness, exposure to opposing views and academic freedom.

"I'm a big fan of academic freedom," board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, was quoted saying recently in the Houston Chronicle.

Well, who isn't? But members like Mercer seem to suggest that, unless they can inject unfounded doubts about Darwin into the state curriculum, students will spontaneously lose their ability to ask questions and exercise their critical thinking skills.

Students have questions

Robert Dennison, Houston ISD's AP science lead teacher based at Robert E. Lee High School, said nothing can stop his students from questioning him on evolution, especially when it comes to relationships among human ancestors.

"They're full of questions," says Dennison. "They want to know how life works."

Anti-evolution members also claim their "weaknesses" campaign has nothing to do with faith: "We're not putting religion in books," Mercer has said.

No, just falsehoods. As scientists testified at the state board hearing last week, evolution is a scientific theory, not a hypothesis. And scientific theories don't have weaknesses. If they did, the board would be justified in raising challenges to everything from gravity to relativity to the germ theory of disease.

The so-called weaknesses usually spewed by evolution opponents are the same, tired arguments that have been adequately refuted by scientists for decades.

One of their favorites involves gaps in the fossil record.

"We're somehow put in the position, almost literally, of having to provide a minute-by-minute description of the morphology of creatures that haven't existed on the earth for hundreds of millions of years," says Andrew Ellington, a biochemistry professor at the University of Texas. "Is it a surprise that we don't have every fossil in the record, but that every one we do have fits perfectly with what you might expect for an evolutionary progression of creatures?"

Chilling effects

No, we don't have every bone. Evolution hasn't answered every question. And among those scientists who have tried, many have made mistakes. But, as Ellington says, "weakness of fact" does not equal "a weakness of theory."

Ellington, Dennison and others worry that the "weaknesses" mention in the curriculum standards has had a chilling effect on science teachers, some of whom aren't all that comfortable teaching the complex subject of evolution to begin with.

Dennison said some have been effectively intimidated into skimming the surface of the topic, or just avoiding it altogether by pushing the unit to the end of the year, hoping the class never gets to it.

And this, Ellington says, means that many Texas students aren't coming to college with a strong foundation in science, which can affect everything from the prestige of universities to the state's economic future.

Ellington says he located both his biotechnology companies in other states, in part because venture capitalists perceived the Lone Star State as having a "lax or backward educational climate."

Texas may not yet be Kansas, which drew nationwide ridicule when it adopted science standards that challenged evolution.

But if the "weakness" language stays, there's a strong possibility that the board's conservative members on the partisan, elected board will try in a couple of years to insert it into textbooks. And, this time, they might have the votes to win.

True scientific debate is healthy. So are questions. But injecting doubt in curriculum for the sake of ideological agenda will harm our students and our state.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Single cell giant up-ends early evolution


Monday, 24 November 2008 Michael Reilly
Discovery News

Slowly rolling across the ocean floor, a humble single celled creature is poised to change our understanding of how complex life evolved on earth.

The grape-sized Gromia sphaerica, a distant relative of microscopic amoebas, had previously been discovered lying motionless at the bottom of the Arabian Sea.

But when Assistant Professor Mikhail Matz of the University of Texas and a group of researchers stumbled across a group of G. sphaerica off the coast of the Bahamas, the creatures were leaving trails behind them up to 50 centimetres long in the mud.

The trouble is that these single celled critters, also known as giant deep sea protists, aren't supposed to be able to leave trails.

Trace fossils

The oldest fossils of animal trails, called 'trace fossils', date to around 580 million years ago, and palaeontologists believed they must have been made by multicellular animals with complex, symmetrical bodies.

But G. sphaerica's traces are the spitting image of the old, Precambrian fossils; two small ridges line the outside of the trail, and one thin bump runs down the middle.

At up to three centimetres in diameter, they're enormous compared to most of their microscopic cousins.

"If these guys were alive 600 million years ago, and their traces got fossilised, a palaeontologist who had never seen this thing would not have a shade of doubt attributing this kind of trace to the activity of a big, multicellular, bilaterally symmetrical animal," says Matz.

"This is a very important discovery," says Professor Shuhai Xiao of Virginia Polytechnic Institute. "The fact that protists can make traces has important implications for how we interpret many trace fossils."

The finding could overturn conventional thinking on the evolution of early life during a period known as the Cambrian explosion.

Until about 550 million years ago, there were very few animals leaving trails behind. Then, within ten million years an unprecedented blossoming of life swarmed across the planet, filling every niche with hard-bodied, complex creatures.

"It wasn't a gradual development of complexity," says Matz. "Instead these things suddenly seemed to burst out of a magic box."

Species explosion

Charles Darwin first noticed the Cambrian explosion and thought it was an artefact of a poorly preserved fossil record.

The precambrian trace fossils were left by multicellular animals, he reasoned, so there must be some gap in fossils between the nearly empty Precambrian and the teeming world that quickly followed.

But if the first traces were instead made by G. sphaerica, it would mean the explosion was real; it must have been a diversification of life on a scale never before seen.

Genetic analysis of the water-filled G. sphaerica cells also reveals tantalizing clues that it could be the oldest living fossil on the planet.

"There's a 1.8 billion-year-old fossil in the Stirling formation in Australia that looks just like one of their traces, and with a discoidal body impression similar to these guys," says Matz. "We haven't proved anything, but we might be looking at the ultimate living macroscopic fossil."

Creationism v science: school on report


Anna Patty Education Editor November 25, 2008

THE state school registration and curriculum authority has investigated the teaching of creation theory in science classes at a Christian school.

The Board of Studies responded to a complaint about Pacific Hills Christian School in Dural and will hand down its findings early next month.

The general manager of the board, John Bennett, told a budget estimates committee last week that the school was under investigation for "teaching creationism in science classes".

A spokeswoman for the board said it had acted on a complaint that the school had not properly followed its requirements for teaching the science syllabus.

The board referred the complaint to Christian Schools Australia, asking it to investigate.

The board also accepted the school's invitation to inspect its teaching and learning activities.

The board spokeswoman said its curriculum director was given a user name and password for the school's intranet, which allowed him to review the curriculum. He also attended several science classes and observed student work on evolution.

"Our inspector reviewed the school's educational programs for science, including student work samples and the assessment tasks set for years 7-10 science and year 11 biology classes," the board spokeswoman said. "The Christian Schools Australia investigation and report have been received and the board's own processes are close to completion.

"The matter will be finalised and the outcome communicated to the school and the complainant within the next two weeks."

The head of Christian Schools Australia, Stephen O'Doherty, said his organisation had found no reason for Pacific Christian School to lose its registration. "The whole thing is a complete furphy," he said. The school did not teach intelligent design or "creationism" - creation as scientific theory. He said the school had met the Board of Studies syllabus requirements in teaching evolution theory as science.

"It doesn't breach Darwinian theory to ask who set up the world to work in this way or even to say who was there before the big bang," he said. "We are not arguing for the ability to replace science with some other theory."

Chris Bonnor, the former head of the NSW Secondary Schools Principals Council, made the original complaint about Pacific Hills after viewing a television clip that briefly showed how a science class was taught.

He said he did not believe the school had implemented the Board of Studies science syllabus in its teaching of evolution.

"The science lesson in the school was not balanced," Mr Bonnor said. "It is fine to teach God behind evolution, but not in a science class.

"Notwithstanding the integrity of the organisation, I would question whether Christian Schools Australia is the appropriate body to investigate a complaint of this nature for the body that frames the syllabus."

Mr O'Doherty said Mr Bonnor was "whistling in the wind".

"The school does not teach creation as science or intelligent design," he said. "When they talk about faith-based perspectives on creation they tell students that it is not part of syllabus.

"We invited Mr Bonnor to look at the teacher programs and to look at the documentation and he declined."

A state Greens MP, John Kaye, said no private school in NSW had been disciplined for "pushing creationist propaganda in science classes".

"That's not surprising given that the board handed over its only investigation to Christian Schools Australia," he said. "The fox has been put in charge of the hen house."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Evolution education update: November 21, 2008

No shortage of news from Texas, where the state board of education heard testimony about the proposed revisions to the state science standards from over ninety citizens, just two days after a survey of the state's biology professors revealed overwhelming rejection of the arguments advanced by the antievolutionists seeking to undermine the treatment of evolution in those standards. And Judgment Day -- the documentary about the Kitzmiller v. Dover case -- receives new kudos from the AAAS.


The Texas state board of education heard testimony about the proposed new set of state science standards during its meeting on November 19, 2008 -- and plenty of the testimony concerned the treatment of evolution in the standards. As the Dallas Morning News (November 20, 2008) explained, the standards "will dictate what is taught in science classes in elementary and secondary schools and provide the material for state tests and textbooks. The standards will remain in place for a decade after their approval by the state board."

The standards under consideration were not the version released in September 2008, but a revised version drafted in November 2008 and not posted on the Texas Education Agency's website until November 17, 2008. A significant difference is that the September version omitted the "strengths and weaknesses" language of the old standards, which was selectively applied in 2003 by members of the board seeking to dilute the treatment of evolution in biology textbooks, while the November version includes a variant of it: "strengths and limitations."

Texas Citizens for Science's Steven Schafersman told the board that the "strengths and weaknesses" language was unscientific and pedagogically inappropriate, according to the Austin American-Statesman (November 20, 2008). He was not alone in his view: according to a report issued by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund just two days before the hearing, 94% of Texas biology professors regard the "weaknesses" of evolution cited by creationists as not representing valid scientific objections to evolution.

Nor was Schafersman alone in defending the teaching of evolution at the meeting. In a story significantly headlined "Evolution proponents descend on state education panel," the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (November 20, 2008) observed, "With few exceptions, the speakers -- scientists, teachers, clergy and grassroots activists -- took the side of evolution," a situation that evidently vexed the chair of the board, avowed creationist Don McLeroy, who complained, "This is all being ginned up by the evolution side."

Reflecting on the spectacle, the Corpus Christi Call-Times (November 20, 2008) editorially commented, "Members of the state Board of Education, as they prepare to establish a new science curriculum, should certainly heed the advice of the state's top science teachers: Teaching the 'weaknesses' of the theory of evolution raises questions about its validity, questions that are not shared by established science. Public schools should teach evolution. Period. Texas students will have to compete in the real world, not the flat earth of the past."

In addition to the newspaper reports, detailed running commmentary on the meeting was posted on their blogs by representatives of two of the groups defending the integrity of science education in Texas: Texas Citizens for Science, on the Houston Chronicle's Evo.Sphere blog, and the Texas Freedom Network, on its own blog. Both groups are going to continue to monitor the standards, which are expected first to return to the writing committee for revisions in December 2008, and then return to the board for consideration in January 2009.

For the story in the Dallas Morning News, visit:

For the TEA's information about the standards, visit:

For the story in the Austin American-Statesman, visit:

For the report from the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund (PDF), visit:

For the story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, visit:

For the editorial in the Corpus Christi Call-Times, visit:

For Texas Citizens for Science and its blog, visit:

For the Texas Freedom Network and its blog, visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit:


Scientists at public and private universities in Texas overwhelmingly reject the arguments advanced by the antievolutionists seeking to undermine the treatment of evolution in Texas's state science standards, according to a report just released by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. "This survey leaves no doubt that the political crusade against evolution and other attempts to dumb down our public school science curriculum are deeply misguided," TFN Education Fund President Kathy Miller said in a press release. "Texas scientists are clearly worried that failing to provide a 21st-century science education in our public schools will harm our children's chances to succeed in college and the jobs of the future."

The report, entitled Evolution, Creationism, and Public Education: Surveying What Texas Scientists Think about Educating Our Kids in the 21st Century, details a survey conducted by the TFN Education Fund in conjunction with Raymond Eve, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, Arlington, who is the coauthor with Francis B. Harrold of The Creationist Movement in Modern America (Twayne, 1990). The survey was sent to the 1019 biologists and biological anthropologists on the faculty of all 35 public and the 15 largest private colleges and universities in Texas. The response rate was high -- 45% of those surveyed responded. "Their responses should send parents a clear message that those who want to play politics with science education are putting our kids at risk," Eve commented.

The TFN Education Fund's press release summarizes five key findings from the survey: "1. Texas scientists (97.7 percent) overwhelmingly reject 'intelligent design' as valid science. 2. Texas science faculty (95 percent) want only evolution taught in science classrooms. 3. Scientists reject teaching the so-called 'weaknesses' of evolution, with 94 percent saying that those arguments are not valid scientific objections to evolution. 4. Science faculty believe that emphasizing 'weaknesses' of evolution would substantially harm students' college readiness (79.6 percent) and ability to compete for 21st-century jobs (72 percent). 5. Scientists (91 percent) strongly believe that support for evolution is compatible with religious faith."

Evolution, Creationism, and Public Education was released just as the Texas state board of education was preparing to consider a new draft set of state science standards from November 19 to November 21, hearing testimony from the public on November 19. The Dallas Morning News (November 17, 2008) reported that "a majority of members have voiced support for retaining the current mandate to cover both strengths and weaknesses of major scientific theories, notably evolution, in science courses." But the TFN Education Fund's Kathy Miller told the newspaper that it would be a mistake for the board not to heed the clear consensus of Texas science professors: "This survey leaves no doubt that the political crusade against evolution and other attempts to dumb down our public school science curriculum are deeply misguided."

For the TFN Education Fund's press release, visit:

For Education, Creationism, and Public Education (PDF), visit:

For tthe story in the Dallas Morning News, visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit:


Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, the NOVA documentary about Kitzmiller v. Dover, was among the winners of the 2008 Science Journalism Awards presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to honor excellence in science reporting. According to a November 12, 2008, press release:


The judges praised the two-hour NOVA broadcast for its careful, balanced presentation on the landmark Dover, Pennsylvania, court case that weighed the merits of discussing "intelligent design" in the science classroom. Through interviews with participants in the 2005 case, use of trial transcripts and reenactments of key courtroom moments, the broadcast captured the community turmoil surrounding the case, described the modern science of evolution, and explained why U.S District Court Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent design is a religious idea that should not be taught in public school science classrooms . Frank Roylance, a science writer for The Baltimore Sun who was on the judging panel, said the NOVA broadcast was "a very careful, methodical and sensitive presentation of a vital scientific question, with enormous social and political import." He added: "The filmmakers managed to be both clear and accurate with the science, and fair and sensitive to the beliefs of the ID proponents." Tina Hesman Saey of Science News said the program "brought to life the scientific process and really shows how we know what we know about the evolution of life on Earth."


NCSE congratulates the producers of the documentary -- NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation, Vulcan Productions Inc., and The Big Table Film Company -- on the honor, which includes a $3000 award and a plaque. Judgment Day was also the recipient of a Peabody Award and a finalist for the Communication Award presented by the National Academies.

For information about Judgment Day, visit:

For information about Kitzmiller v. Dover, visit:

For the AAAS's press release, visit:

For information about Judgment Day's other awards, visit:

Thanks for reading! And as always, be sure to consult NCSE's web site: http://www.ncseweb.org where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it.


Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x305
fax: 510-601-7204

Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism

NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Educators debate merits of changing how evolution is taught


By EMILY GUEVARA November, 20, 2008

Proposed changes to the Texas public school science curriculum regarding evolution have ignited debate between educators in Southeast Texas and statewide.

The proposed revisions for biology call for students to "analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations of scientific explanations," causing some educators to worry that religion could be brought into the science classroom, or worse, that students may not be adequately prepared for college-level science courses.

"It's really a little perplexing to me," said David Bradley, the Beaumont area's state board representative. "We're on a regular schedule to update curriculum and all of a sudden there is a liberal faction that is determined to remove a position in the curriculum that has been there since 1988."

David Hillis, professor of biological sciences at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert reviewer of the first draft of science curriculum, said, "I think it's not in the best interests of Texas school children. I think that wording leaves it open for many different interpretations."

At issue is the way teachers will teach evolution to students.

The current high school biology curriculum, adopted in 1998, calls for students to use "critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions."

It goes on to say, "The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information."

The revisions continue in this same vain, calling for students to "analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations of scientific explanations."

The State Board of Education met Wednesday to discuss the proposed curriculum revisions and several other items. The 15-member board is responsible for establishing policies and providing leadership for the Texas Public School system, according to the Texas Education Agency Web site.

The reality now is that most science students hear evolutionary theory as just that, a theory, said Patsy McGee, science supervisor for the Beaumont Independent School District.

Students come to the classroom and hear about the academic basis for the theory. It is their job to hash that out based on their religious views or other personal beliefs, she said. The school does not cross that line.

"There's not a wrong or right answer at that point except do you know what the theory says," McGee said by phone. "Students have to critique (the theory) and somehow make a decision, make it work, make it gel with what they already know."

Hillis of the University of Texas said he is concerned that the proposed wording will leave the door open for religion to enter the classroom. He said that historically certain members of the board used the wording to try to remove standard biology textbooks from the classroom on the grounds that they didn't meet that standard.

"That language has turned out to be an enormous distraction to the state of Texas," Hillis said.

But there is also another side. Student performance in biology could suffer if they are not properly educated in evolutionary theory, Hillis said.

Lamar University professor Jim Westgate agreed. Furthermore, he said that in addressing evolution from the scientific perspective, there are no weaknesses or negative points.

"The one uniting principal in the field of biology is that organisms have evolved to their present state over billions of years," he said. "So if you take that uniting concept away, the whole science of biology would fall apart."

McGee said she has no problem with the proposed curriculum changes. In fact, she feels they will more helpful to educators because they better spell out what concepts should be taught in the classroom. She said the teachers know there is a separation of church and state for a reason, and they are reminded to separate the two.

Emmery Dennis, mother to a 15-year-old Silsbee High School student, said that students should be encouraged to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of any theory and even evaluate the religious perspective alongside the scientific. That would foster more debate and allow students to make their own decisions, she said.

"You become more knowledgeable and think deeper if you see both sides of it than if you see just one side," said Dennis, 49, a registered nurse, who received her education in the Philippines.

The state board will vote on the revised science curriculum next March.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Disco. Inst. tries to hustle Texans


Category: Policy and Politics

Posted on: November 18, 2008 7:44 PM, by Josh Rosenau

The Disco. Inst. is in a tizzy. No, it's more than a tizzy, it's all-out Disco. Inferno! Spokesman Rob Crowther writes: Liberal Darwin Activists Spin Push-Poll in Attempt to Water Down Science Standards:

The liberal Darwin lobby group Texas Freedom Network has just published a push-poll of scientists titled, "Survey of Texas Faculty: Overwhelming Opposition to Watering Down Evolution in School Science Curriculum."…

What is stunning is the TFN's jackbooted thuggery of threatening parents!

I can hear you all typing your comments now: "Surely not!," you'll tell me. The Texas Freedom Network is a group of mild-mannered civil libertarians.

But Rob has proof, from their press release announcing a systematic survey of science faculty at the state's universities:

"Many of these science faculty members almost certainly help determine who gets into our state's colleges and universities," Eve said. "Their responses should send parents a clear message that those who want to play politics with science education are putting our kids at risk."

"Sounds ominous, doesn't it?," Crowther asks.

Yes indeed, that's some jackbooted thuggery. Saying that kids' college applications will be judged on the basis of whether they have learned accurate science is just like an ATF agent kicking down your door, or like a Nazi stormtrooper taking you off to a concentration camp. I can see how you'd draw that comparison. Unless you'd been to college or paid any attention at all to modern world history.

As for that "push poll," you'll be shocked to learn that Crowther is trying to hustle you again. As professional pollster Mark Blumenthal explains:

Many organizations have posted definitions (AAPOR, NCPP, CMOR, CBS News, Campaigns and Elections, Wikipedia), but the important thing to remember is that a "push poll" is not a poll at all. It's a fraud, an attempt to disseminate information under the guise of a legitimate survey. The proof is in the intent of the person doing it.

To understand what I mean, imagine for a moment that you are an ethically challenged political operative ready to play the hardest of hardball.…

You want to spread the rumor or exploit the issue without leaving fingerprints. So you hire a telemarketer to make phone calls that pretend to be a political poll. You "ask" only a question or two aimed at spreading the rumor (example: "would you be more or less likely to support John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate child who was black?"). You want to make as many calls as quickly as possible, so you do not bother with the time consuming tasks performed by most real pollsters, such as asking a lot of questions or asking to speak to a specific or random individual within the household.

Again, the proof is in the intent: If the sponsor intends to communicate a message to as many voters as possible rather than measure opinions or test messages among a sample of voters, it qualifies as a "push poll."

We can usually identify a true push poll by a few characteristics that serve as evidence of that intent. "Push pollsters" (and MP hates that term) aim to reach as many voters as possible, so they typically make tens or even hundreds of thousands of calls. Real surveys usually attempt to interview only a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand respondents (though not always). Push polls typically ask just a question or two, while real surveys are almost always much longer and typically conclude with demographic questions about the respondent (such as age, race, education, income). The information presented in a true push poll is usually false or highly distorted, but not always. A call made for the purposes of disseminating information under the guise of survey is still a fraud - and thus still a "push poll" - even if the facts of the "questions" are technically true or defensible.

The TFN survey is very different. Here is their brief description of the methodology:

In late fall 2007 and early spring of 2008, a lengthy survey (59 questions – some open-ended) was sent to 1,019 individual biology and biological anthropology faculty members from all 35 public universities plus the 15 largest private institutions in Texas. In the end 464 survey recipients submitted completed questionnaires. This represents better than a 45% response rate – almost unheard of for the remote return of a lengthy questionnaire of this type. The diversity of the response was also surprisingly robust, with respondents participating from 49 different institutions. Presumably this high response rate reflects the sense of eagerness and importance that the respondents attached to expressing their actual opinions on this issue. The overwhelming response rate provides the first unambiguous finding of this survey: we can now say with certainty that scientists are extremely invested in the issue of creationism/intelligent design generally and in the political debate over science standards in the state of Texas specifically.

A lengthy survey, sent to a small and well-defined group of respondents. It focused on eliciting information from respondents, using not only multiple choice and true-or-false questions, but open-ended questions allowing respondents to express nuances of opinion.

The survey's questions are not even biased against ID. For instance, respondents were asked to select which of these best fit their own view of evolutionary biology:

"Modern evolutionary biology is largely correct in its essentials, but still has open questions for active scientific research."

"Modern evolutionary biology is correct in some respects. While further scientific research will require some major alterations to current theory, these advances will not invoke intervention by any supernatural agent."

"Modern evolutionary biology is right about the common ancestry of all extant organisms, but it is necessary to supplement it by invoking periodic intervention by an intelligent designer."

"Modern evolutionary biology is mostly wrong. Life arose through multiple creation events by an intelligent designer, although evolution by natural selection played a limited role."

"Modern evolutionary biology is completely wrong. Life was created essentially as we see it today."

The penultimate option nicely captures ID creationism, and does not label it as creationism, nor does it point out that this designer must be supernatural. Even so, 89% of Texan biology faculty selected the first option, 8% chose the second (rejecting supernatural intervention, but calling for substantial revisions to current evolutionary thinking), and only 2.3% chose any of the last three. 92% disagreed with the statement that "Intelligent Design (which holds that some intelligent agent intervened in the creation or evolution of life)" should be "presented in public school science classrooms as scientifically credible."

Strong majorities of biology professors opposed the current "strengths and weaknesses" standard. A whopping 94% disagreed with the statement that "'weaknesses' advanced by proponents of creationism or intelligent design represent valid scientific objections to evolution." Two thirds (67%) stated that the State Board of Education "should amend the [state's science] standards to exclude discussion of the 'weaknesses' of evolution as advanced by proponents of creationism or intelligent design theory." Again, they give ID too much credit in treating it as distinct from creationism, and in granting it status as a theory. Even so, opposition by professors is striking.

This is not to say that the professors oppose discussing scientific controversies in class. Asked "To what extent do you agree that the Texas State Board of Education should explicitly encourage coverage in high school classrooms of areas of genuine uncertainty and active research within the scientific community regarding evolution (e.g., whether speciation can occur sympatrically, neutral theory, punctuated equilibrium)?," almost 85% agreed either somewhat strongly, and 4.5% were unsure.

One professor explained that "Scientific skepticism and challenging is central to how science gets done. But this component of scientific methodology is being exploited by the creationists/ID types to attempt to insert their ideas into the curriculum. These attempts are not being done in the professional scientific realm, where they are supposed to be done, but in the political realm, so their approach is a distortion of how science reaches a consensus of understanding. I don't hear calls for discussion of the 'strengths and weaknesses' of quantum theory, or gravitational cosmology."

No, you don't. Because those sorts of challenges are dealt with in graduate seminars and the academic literature. When they're resolved, they'll move first to upper-level college classes, then to introductory courses in college, and perhaps then to high school. Through their efforts to circumvent the normal scientific process, Disco. is attempting to use the power of the state to force dishonest and inaccurate nonsense on children.

This has consequences. One professor responded to the survey by explaining that

My students are woefully unprepared. They report that their high school teachers are often 1) afraid to teach evolution properly because of parent reaction, 2) unsupported by their principals and admin, who "let them slide," 3) ignorant of actual information on evolution, or 4) belligerently unwilling to teach the material and make snide comments about how their religion says evolution is for atheists. Their understanding of science as a whole is damaged by this environment.

No surprise, then, that 8 in 10 of the professors think that "teaching high school students that these 'weaknesses' are scientifically valid impairs their readiness for college," and 72% think that it "impairs their ability to compete for 21st century jobs."

Disco. is right to be worried about this study. It puts the lie to their attempts to undermine Texas science education. The "strengths and weaknesses" standard doesn't help students, it doesn't help teachers, and it surely doesn't help post-secondary educators.

With luck, Disco.'s work will be as outmoded in a few years as 1979's Disco Handbook, from which the artists' conception of Rob Crowther and the Disco. Inst. offices (above) are drawn.

Evolution proponents descend on state education panel


By DAVE MONTGOMERY dmontgomery@star-telegram.com

AUSTIN — Texas became the latest stage for the debate about evolution and creationism Wednesday, as more than 80 witnesses trooped before the State Board of Education to weigh in on proposed changes in the public school science curriculum.

With few exceptions, the speakers — scientists, teachers, clergy and grassroots activists — took the side of evolution, saying they feared that the proposed changes will open the door to the teaching of creationism or intelligent design.

Board Chairman Don McLeroy said the lopsided turnout was part of an orchestrated campaign and flatly dismissed the notion that the board is intent on sabotaging the teaching of evolution in public schools, which would defy the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This is all being ginned up by the evolution side," McLeroy, of College Station, said in an interview during a break. "I'm a creationist, but I'm not going to put creationism in the schools."

Origins of the issue

Charles Darwin introduced the theory of evolution — that species, including humans, evolved over millions of years — in 1859. Creationists hold that God created all things, citing physical evidence that they say supports the biblical account of creation. Those who espouse intelligent design say certain features of the natural world are so complex that they are likely products of an intelligent cause rather than random mutation and natural selection.

Court rulings

The Supreme Court and a host of lower courts have upheld the teaching of evolution, ruling that teaching creationism or intelligent design would violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

What now?

A committee of the State Board of Education has recommended a change that permits analysis of "strengths and limitations" of evolution in the study of biology and other high school science courses. The committee's draft, released Nov. 12, changed language that had been more acceptable to evolution proponents. Although the problem of those three words might seem subtle, advocacy groups fear that the change would weaken science instruction in the schools.

What they said

Testimony stretched into the evening Wednesday.

"Scientists overwhelmingly consider evolution to be established, mainstream science, and scientists have been crystal-clear in explaining that phony arguments against evolution are based on ideology, not science," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network.

Wendee Holtcamp, a freelance writer, drew a sharp reprimand from McLeroy when she accused the board of lying. "Are you willing to play dice with our children's education as our nation's science lead deteriorates?" Holtcamp asserted.

One of the few voices from the other side came from Paul Kramer, a Carrollton engineer, who said that more than 700 eminent scientists welcome the teaching of pros and cons about evolution. Not allowing debate over untested and unproven theories "seems out of place in a free society" and is reminiscent of book-burning in Nazi Germany, he said.

What's next?

The board is not expected to vote on the issue until next year, possibly in January.

DAVE MONTGOMERY, 512-476-4294

Majority say teach evolution in Texas



Associated Press

A new study finds 95 percent of science professors at Texas' public and private universities are against a state policy requiring weaknesses in the theory of evolution be covered in public school science classes.

A sociology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington surveyed 464 university biologists and anthropologists for a study by the progressive group Texas Freedom Network.

The majority surveyed said schools should teach "just evolution" in covering the origins of life on earth. The rest said children should learn both evolution and the creationist theory called "intelligent design."

"Many of these science faculty members help determine who gets into our state colleges and universities," said the study's author, Raymond A. Eve, in Monday's online edition of The Dallas Morning News. "Their responses should send parents a clear message that those who want to play politics with science education are putting our kids at risk."

Most study respondents said they believe any focus on the weaknesses of evolution theory and on alternative theories would harm students' college readiness and their ability to compete for jobs.

Survey results were released ahead of Wednesday's state Board of Education public hearing on new science curriculum standards.

A main topic of discussion is expected to be how teachers should treat Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

New science curriculum standards for Texas public school students will be voted on early next year in what is expected to be a close vote by the state Board of Education. A majority of members have said they are in favor of retaining the current mandate to cover both strengths and weaknesses of major scientific theories, notably evolution.

Standards adopted by the board will remain in place for the next decade.

Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller, whose group often spars with social conservatives, said it would be a mistake to ignore the beliefs of science professors from public and private universities across the state.

"This survey leaves no doubt that the political crusade against evolution and other attempts to dumb down our public school science curriculum are deeply misguided," Miller said.

State education panel hears evolution debate


07:09 AM CST on Thursday, November 20, 2008 By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution grabbed center stage Wednesday as State Board of Education members heard from dozens of Texans trying to influence the panel on how evolution should be covered in science classes of the future.

College professors, science teachers and pro-evolution groups urged the board to drop a rule that requires the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin's theory to be taught in science courses, while conservative groups aligned with a sizable bloc of board members said the rule has worked well and hasn't forced religion into those classes as critics charge.

Andrew Ellington, a biochemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was one of those warning that the state could become a "laughingstock" in the science community if it insists on watering down the treatment of evolution in science classes.

"At a time when Gov. [Rick] Perry has shepherded a landmark plan for cancer research and treatment, we cannot afford for the retrograde elements of the state board to foster teaching the equivalent of astrology to our students," Dr. Ellington said.

Nearly 90 people registered to testify on the proposed curriculum standards, which will dictate what is taught in science classes in elementary and secondary schools and provide the material for state tests and textbooks. The standards will remain in place for a decade after their approval by the state board.

Rabbi Nancy Kasten of Dallas, a board member for the National Council of Jewish Women, said a state rule mandating that weaknesses of evolution be covered makes science education in Texas "vulnerable to a wide range of speculative and subversive interpretation" – including non-scientific explanations such as creationism.

"As a member of a religious minority, I rely on the Constitution to ensure that our government and its institutions, including our public schools, serve Americans of all faiths and no faith," she said.

On the other side, Carrollton engineer Paul Kramer called on the board to retain the strengths-and-weaknesses rule for all scientific theories, insisting that its elimination would unfairly restrict debate among students on "untested and unproven" theories.

"One can only wonder if we crush free speech and debate in our public classrooms now, where will it end?" he asked, citing a parallel with Nazi Germany. He also presented the board with a document, "A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism," signed by 700 scientists and institutions around the world skeptical of some of Darwin's principles.

Mark Ramsey of Texans for Better Science Education accused "Darwinist activists" of trying to censor what Texas students learn about evolution.

"The State Board of Education needs to stand up for academic freedom and make sure that scientific inquiry is not expelled from our classrooms," he said.

Board members are scheduled to take their first vote on the curriculum standards in January.

Revisions recommended by a panel of experts this week call for changing the "strengths-and-weaknesses" standard to "strengths and limitations." Another recommendation calls for middle school students to "discuss possible alternative explanations" for scientific concepts.

The latter change brought sharp criticism from the progressive Texas Freedom Network.

"The new draft contains loaded buzzwords that evolution deniers have used repeatedly to launch phony attacks on evolution," said network president Kathy Miller.

Board of Education challenged over evolution


Scientists, teachers implore panel not to water down science curriculum


Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Nov. 19, 2008, 10:08PM

AUSTIN — Texas risks becoming a national joke if state educators insist on clouding the teaching of evolution, scores of scientists, science teachers and concerned residents Texans told the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

They pleaded with the 15-member board not to confuse public schoolchildren with a watered-down teaching of evolution by requiring teachers to teach the weaknesses or limitations of evolution.

The board is expected to take a preliminary vote in January on new science curriculum standards that will dictate new science books for the state's 4.5 million students.

"Once again, Texas is in the national spotlight, and scientists, science teachers, and education news writers all over the United States are waiting to see what new foolishness is going to happen in Austin this time," Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science, told the board. "Once again our state is going to experience the embarrassment of having anti-scientific, anti-evolutionists on the state board try to game the process and force the new science standards to contain anti-scientific language."

The issue for most critics focuses on the provision requiring both the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.

"Scientists want to get rid of this weaknesses wording. It's just bad science," Schafersman said. "Scientific theories don't have weaknesses."

Some science hypotheses have weaknesses, he said. But he and other experts emphasized that such theories governing atomic, germ or plate tectonics don't have weaknesses.

For board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, the issue involves academic freedom and allowing students to ask questions.

"I'm a big fan of academic freedom," Mercer said. "We're not putting religion in books."

Evolution as an explanation for the nature and history of life on Earth is a major unifying concept in science, Francis Eberle, head of the 60,000-member National Science Teachers Association, told the board.

"Only one model — the theory of evolution — is widely accepted, and any other model should not be used in the science classroom," Eberle said. "Students are easily impressed and are not often able to comprehend the complexity of adult arguments."

Texas students would be disadvantaged in the world's work force if exposed to pseudoscience concepts and if evolution is not reinforced as a major scientific concept, he said.

Nearly 90 people signed up to testify before the board. By early evening, only one person embraced the weaknesses provision.

Not all of the complaints involved evolution. Several teachers criticized the state's proposed science curriculum standards as being overly broad and not deep enough.

Ginkgo ineffective against dementia, study finds


Submitted by SHNS on Wed, 11/19/2008 - 14:27. By GARY ROTSTEIN, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette health/fitness

Eight years and $36.5 million after Alzheimer's disease researchers launched the biggest U.S. study ever of whether ginkgo biloba could help stave off dementia, they got an answer.

It just wasn't the result they wanted.

The Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory Study found adults older than 75 taking the popular herbal extract were just as likely to develop dementia as those ingesting a placebo.

In fact, among the 3,069 participants in the studies conducted by the University of Pittsburgh, Johns Hopkins University, the University of California, Davis and Wake Forest University, those using ginkgo tablets had an even greater likelihood of developing Alzheimer's, although not by a statistically significant difference.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association today, have apparent use in ruling out one of the often-touted potential tools against the dreaded disease. That's not as valuable, however, as what they had hoped.

"Of course I'm disappointed. We're all terrifically disappointed," said Dr. Steven DeKosky, a neurologist who headed the study and left Pittsburgh this year to become dean at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

The federal government's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine invested $25.3 million as the primary funder of the multi-center trial, in which participants with no history of dementia were assessed every six months for signs of developing it.

Smaller studies had suggested the antioxidant qualities of ginkgo, a relatively low-cost herbal supplement, might counter memory loss in some who already have Alzheimer's -- much like more expensive pharmaceutical drugs.

DeKosky said it would have been a major finding if those taking twice-daily doses of 120 milligrams of ginkgo developed Alzheimer's at a rate 20 percent to 30 percent below that of the other study participants. Instead, 277 members of the ginkgo group -- or 18 percent -- and 246 of the placebo group -- 16 percent -- were diagnosed with the cognitive disease over six years of study.

Generally, about 4 percent of the population 75 and older will develop the disease each year.

A similar study of ginkgo's value is being held in Europe, with results anticipated in a year or two, but the thoroughness of the DeKosky-headed trial would make it surprising to see a different outcome, said Dr. Richard Nahin, acting director of extramural research for the national alternative medicine center.

"It's clear, not ambiguous at all," he said. "One potential medical product to help prevent dementia is just no longer available."

Plenty of people are still likely to take ginkgo as a health supplement, for various reasons. U.S. consumers spent $107 million on it last year, according to Nutrition Business Journal estimates. And its advocates expressed skepticism of the study's findings.

The Natural Products Association issued a statement saying people younger than 75 need to be evaluated while taking ginkgo, because its preventive benefits could take longer to show up than is evident with the old age group in the study.

And the American Botanical Council said it wasn't willing to dismiss other research that has showed "the safety and efficacy of gingko extract for both cognitive function and improved circulation."

The national Alzheimer's Association has never been sufficiently impressed to recommend ginkgo as a way of preventing or countering the disease. Dr. William Theis, the association's vice president of medical and scientific relations, said the data "was always questionable."

"This sort of puts a period on that discussion," he said. "People spending lots of money on ginkgo can find other ways to use that money."

E-mail Gary Rotstein grotstein(at)post-gazette.com.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

Darwin on the Right


Thursday, November 20, 2008

This Sunday I'll be preaching on the topic of Creation in an evening series at my church. Our Sunday evening format allows for only short sermons and I am trying to distill the broad topic of Creation down to the most fundamental points. I have no intention of defending Creation against evolution or of refuting the various views among Christians that conflict with the position of my church's leadership (though I am sure some of that will arise in the Q&A that follows the sermon). But as I was thinking about the subject of Creation, my mind was drawn to this article I read a couple of years ago. It argues that Christians can and should embrace evolution and lays out the reasons we can do so while remaining faithful to the Bible.

Scientific American is a popular science magazine with a monthly circulation approaching 700,000. Including foreign language editions, the circulation increases to over 1,000,000. First published in 1845, it is the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States. Quite needless to say, it is not a publication that is particularly friendly to creationism. In the October 2006 edition is a column by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic, a magazine produced by The Skeptics Society, which "engages in scientific investigation and journalistic research to investigate claims made by scientists, historians, and controversial figures on a wide range of subjects." His column is titled "Darwin on the Right: Why Christians and conservatives should accept evolution." The column is a brief attempt to lay out six reasons that Christians should embrace evolution. I'd like to take a brief look at each of Shermer's six points. He begins with statistics:

According to a 2005 Pew Research Center poll, 70 percent of evangelical Christians believe that living beings have always existed in their present form, compared with 32 percent of Protestants and 31 percent of Catholics. Politically, 60 percent of Republicans are creationists, whereas only 11 percent accept evolution, compared with 29 percent of Democrats who are creationists and 44 percent who accept evolution. A 2005 Harris Poll found that 63 percent of liberals but only 37 percent of conservatives believe that humans and apes have a common ancestry. What these figures confirm for us is that there are religious and political reasons for rejecting evolution. Can one be a conservative Christian and a Darwinian? Yes. Here's how.

One immediate observation is that he makes a distinction between evangelicals Christians and Protestants, yet does not define these terms. In theory, every Protestant is evangelical and every evangelical is Protestant. So I am uncertain as to how we are to distinguish between these two. Regardless, we will press on.

1. Evolution fits well with good theology. Christians believe in an omniscient and omnipotent God. What difference does it make when God created the universe—10,000 years ago or 10,000,000,000 years ago? The glory of the creation commands reverence regardless of how many zeroes in the date. And what difference does it make how God created life—spoken word or natural forces? The grandeur of life's complexity elicits awe regardless of what creative processes were employed. Christians (indeed, all faiths) should embrace modern science for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divine in a depth and detail unmatched by ancient texts.

I will be the first to affirm that the Bible is not a scientific text. Neither was it intended to be such. However, if we are to believe that the Bible is God's word and that what God has spoken is true, we must also believe that what God says about science must be true. When God says that the world was created by His command, we must believe it to be so. Shermer asks, "what difference does it make how God created life—spoken word or natural forces?" The difference is that the Bible tells us God created the world by His spoken word. We are not able to believe in the Bible as God's word and reject Scripture's clear teaching that life was created from nothing and at God's command. I agree that "Christians … should embrace modern science for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divine in a depth and detail unmatched by ancient texts." But science has not proven evolution. It has not proven that the world was created in any way other than at God's command. I embrace modern science, but only so far as it is compatible with Scripture and plain reason. Evolution does not fit with good theology, for evolution and Scripture are wholly incompatible. If we are to embrace evolution, it will be at the expense of the Bible.

2. Creationism is bad theology. The watchmaker God of intelligent-design creationism is delimited to being a garage tinkerer piecing together life out of available parts. This God is just a genetic engineer slightly more advanced than we are. An omniscient and omnipotent God must be above such humanlike constraints. As Protestant theologian Langdon Gilkey wrote, "The Christian idea, far from merely representing a primitive anthropomorphic projection of human art upon the cosmos, systematically repudiates all direct analogy from human art." Calling God a watchmaker is belittling.

Calling God a watchmaker is clearly belittling, but I do not know of any Christians who believe that God fills this role. God is not a mere garage tinkerer who pieces life together from available parts. Rather, God is the one who not only created life as an idea, as a concept, but who created the available parts and who then assembled them in an orderly fashion. To suggest that God is only slightly more advanced than we are is to ignore the vast gaps that continue to exist in human knowledge. Humans may have been able to map the genome, but a great deal of work remains; an infinite amount of work. The more we conquer, the more we realize we still need to conquer. And one thing humans have never been able to do and will never be able to do is create life ex nihilo, from nothing. We may be able to arrange and rearrange the building blocks of life in some semblance of order, but we are not able to make something from nothing. That is the realm of God alone. Creationism is not bad theology, but is the theology of the Bible. It is not an optional doctrine, but something we must believe if we are to be men and women of the Bible.

3. Evolution explains original sin and the Christian model of human nature. As a social primate, we evolved within-group amity and between-group enmity. By nature, then, we are cooperative and competitive, altruistic and selfish, greedy and generous, peaceful and bellicose; in short, good and evil. Moral codes and a society based on the rule of law are necessary to accentuate the positive and attenuate the negative sides of our evolved nature.

This third point begins with a premise that is accepted only by evolutionists. As Christians we do not believe that humans evolved at all, but that we were deliberately placed on this earth and were made to rule it. To attempt to explain original sin through between-group enmity is to completely misrepresent original sin. Between-group enmity is unable to explain why it is that every human being, no matter his age, culture, race, or gender is sinful. It is unable to explain why we all do things that are wrong and why we all delight in doing wrong even to our within-group. It is unable to explain what is clearly spiritual. Evolution cannot explain original sin or the Christian model of human nature. It cannot explain the conscience, the soul, or sinful nature.

4. Evolution explains family values. The following characteristics are the foundation of families and societies and are shared by humans and other social mammals: attachment and bonding, cooperation and reciprocity, sympathy and empathy, conflict resolution, community concern and reputation anxiety, and response to group social norms. As a social primate species, we evolved morality to enhance the survival of both family and community. Subsequently, religions designed moral codes based on our evolved moral natures.

"Attachment and bonding, cooperation and reciprocity, sympathy and empathy, conflict resolution, community concern and reputation anxiety, and response to group social norms" are all characteristics of families. However, all of these characteristics are as easily and even more easily explained by creation rather than evolution. Could God not have given us the desire to attach and bond? Could he not have made us sympathetic and make us desire to resolve conflicts amicably? Even a brief overview of the Bible will prove this to be true. To suggest that religions designed moral codes based upon moral natures is to put the cart before the horse, for is it not more likely that a moral code existed with God before creation was begun, and that our natures were created in a way consistent with this code? Is it not likely that God, whose moral nature included moral codes, designed us in His image and built that code into us? Is this not an explanation for the laws that seem so clearly to be written into the hearts of all humans? Evolution cannot explain family values and can certainly not explain more codes. A glance at the conflict over the right of homosexuals to marry will show the vast difference between an understanding of family as rooted in naturalistic evolution and of family rooted in God's creative design.

5. Evolution accounts for specific Christian moral precepts. Much of Christian morality has to do with human relationships, most notably truth telling and marital fidelity, because the violation of these principles causes a severe breakdown in trust, which is the foundation of family and community. Evolution describes how we developed into pair-bonded primates and how adultery violates trust. Likewise, truth telling is vital for trust in our society, so lying is a sin.

Christian morality has to do primarily with imitating God who is true and who is faithful. The violation of these principles may case a severe breakdown in truth, but far worse, violation of these principles causes a growing rift between creature and Creator. Christian morality involves human relationships, but only secondarily to the relationship between God and man. Evolution may offer some description of how humans developed into pair-bonded primates and how adultery violates trust. But the Bible offers an answer that is far more clear and far more likely: God created marriage so that human beings could emulate the relationship of Jesus Christ to His people. Truth telling is vital for trust, but even more vital to maintain relationship between God and man. Lying is a sin because it makes a mockery of God who not only tells the truth, but is the very source of truth. Evolution absolutely cannot account for specific moral precepts in a way that is satisfying. And, ironically, evolution is the worldview that underlies the acceptance of non-traditional relationships such as homosexual marriage. Could it be that evolution can be used to explain anything?

6. Evolution explains conservative free-market economics. Charles Darwin's "natural selection" is precisely parallel to Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Darwin showed how complex design and ecological balance were unintended consequences of competition among individual organisms. Smith showed how national wealth and social harmony were unintended consequences of competition among individual people. Nature's economy mirrors society's economy. Both are designed from the bottom up, not the top down.

This sixth point does not seem to fit with the rest of the list. While the other five have dealt with principles that are distinctly Christian, this one turns to free-market economics. Shermer may as well have said "Evolution explains the American obsession with team sports." I know little of economics, free market or otherwise, so will leave this point as-is, except to point out that simply because two theories parallel one another does not make either true.

The article concludes with an exhortation and a passage from Scripture. "Because the theory of evolution provides a scientific foundation for the core values shared by most Christians and conservatives, it should be embraced. The senseless conflict between science and religion must end now, or else, as the Book of Proverbs (11:29) warned: 'He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.'"

There does not need to be a conflict between science and religion. In a perfect world, there would be no conflict, and, indeed, when the world is remade there will be no conflict. What we see in this debate is not a competition between science and religion, but a conflict between worldviews. These worldviews are wholly incompatible. Michael Ruse, a well-known evolutionist, speaks truthfully when he says "evolution came into being as a kind of secular ideology, an explicit substitute for Christianity…Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and is true of evolution still today." Evolution is not mere science, but is religion dressed as science. Evolution, and the naturalism that lies behind it, is a full-blown worldview, and in reality, is a religious system that stands in direct opposition to Christianity. The true conflict, the conflict between evolution and creationism, is a conflict of truth and error, a conflict of God and man. Creationism embraces God as the Creator and Sustainer of the world; evolutionism rejects God replaces Him with time, chance and opportunity. The debate between creationism and evolutionism is by no means senseless, for it is a defense of the truth and a defense of the One who is Truth.

State Board of Education covers all the bases in science hearing


By Molly Bloom | Thursday, November 20, 2008, 09:30 AM

Wednesday's State Board of Education hearing on revised science curriculum standards (You can read our full story on it here.) finally wrapped up a little after 11 p.m. having name-checked most public figures one might expect to come up in a controversial socio-scientific debate:

Galileo? Check.

Nazis? Check.

Ray Wylie Hubbard? Check, tangentially, at least.

Board member Cynthia Dunbar offered up Galileo as an example of a scientist whose revolutionary ideas were squelched by the scientific establishment of the day. Actually, that would be the Church that did Galileo dirty. Still Dunbar, who stated clearly that she was not interested in teaching creationism or intelligent design in public schools, said her point was that he was silenced for presenting a dissenting opinion.

Chairman Don McLeroy also said at some point that he wasn't aware of a single board member that has advocated teaching creationism, intelligent design or supernatural explanations in science classrooms.

Early in the evening, one of the relatively few speakers in support of explicitly requiring teachers to teach the strengths and weaknesses of all scientific theories, including evolution, referred to those against including that requirement as brown-shirted, jack-booted hordes. By that, I'm thinking he means Nazis. (See Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies.)

Jonathan Saenz of the Free Market Foundation, a group that works to limit government and promote free enterprise and Judeo-Christian values, seemed to suggest that the proposed changes to the science curriculum, the changes that would take out the phrase about teaching theories' strengths and weaknesses, are positively un-Texan.

"Darwin was from England and Einstein was from Germany," he told the board. "The elitism and arrogance that has been going on is not what Texas is about."

Reference Hubbard's classic "Screw You, We're From Texas."

By the way, McLeroy asked anyone with suggestions about evolutionary theory-related reading to send them his way. He's already read Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History and The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. But if you've got other suggestions, please, let him know.


Texas Jewish Leaders Fight for Students' First Amendment Rights


Contact: Kate Bigam or Arielle Gingold

AUSTIN, TX, Nov. 20, 2008 – Three Reform Jewish leaders testified yesterday before the Texas State Board of Education on proposed revisions to the state's science curriculum.

Advocating for students' First Amendment rights, the rabbis opposed the state education curriculum that require the teaching of creationism/ intelligent design in science classes. The current curriculum requires the teaching of the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. Although the first proposed change would have struck that language entirely, ensuring that only pure science is taught, the most recent proposal simply substitutes "limitations" for "weaknesses." The Board is scheduled to vote on this issue in January.

Excerpts from the rabbis' testimony are below.

Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, Assistant Director for Education at the Union for Reform Judaism's Greene Family Camp, said:

"On the surface, teaching about the 'strengths and limitations of scientific explanations'… may not seem like teaching religious beliefs. Yet…When science teachers answer questions about evolution and origins of life by pointing to the divine or supernatural, they are incorporating religion into science classrooms.

"For me as a rabbi, science and religion are not at odds … Moses Maimonides … who is perhaps the greatest philosopher of our tradition, was also a physician. He taught that scientific inquiry can lead to more thoughtful religious questions and better educated religious individuals. The place for the quiet discussions about spirituality in science is not in public schools but around the kitchen table, in religious school classrooms, or in a clergy member's office.

"Sadly and painfully, my Jewish ancestors had a long history of persecution in places where there was no separation of church and state. When we permit religious beliefs to be taught in our state schools, we begin to blur the line that keeps religion and government separate. We are so fortunate to live in a country that respects individuals of all faiths. It is essential to maintain the boundaries that will protect religious groups of every faith."

Rabbi Nancy Kasten, of Dallas, said:

"Jewish tradition teaches that we serve God through a never-ending process of asking questions and making discoveries about our world … Studying the world using the tools of scientific method…and forming and testing hypotheses, is the way that scientists formulated our current understanding of evolution. This understanding does not conflict with the Jewish view of Creation. While there are still things to discover about how life evolved and continues to evolve, the questions that challenge current understandings are part of the scientific process itself, and should not be categorized as 'strengths and limitations' in the interest of raising doubt about widely accepted scientific method and promoting specific religious views."

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, said:

"I strongly oppose the revised version where the strengths and limitations of scientific explanations could be evaluated. It seems to me that discussing the limitations of widely accepted, sound scientific theories, such as the theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, or the theory of evolution would take up valuable class time that could be better spent ensuring that our children receive the best scientific education at a time when our country is falling behind the rest of the world in scientific achievement….

For more information about the Reform Jewish Movement's opposition to the teaching of intelligent design and creationism in public schools please see http://rac.org/advocacy/issues/creationism/ or contact the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism at rac@rac.org or 202-387-2800.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Darwinist Texas Science Standards Reviewers Recommend Imposing Dogmatism in the Name of Darwin (Part 1)


In Origin of Species, Charles Darwin famously wrote, ''A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.'' One might think that modern proponents of Darwin's ideas would endorse his approach to scientific thinking within evolution education, but it's not so. The Texas State Board of Education recently received reviews of the proposed Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) from six science reviewers.

Three of those reviewers—who are scientific skeptics of Darwinian evolution—support TEKS that would give students a strong grounding in critical thinking skills by asking them to "analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information."

Three other reviewers, however, are Darwinists who oppose giving students that opportunity to use such critical thinking skills when learning about Darwin's theory and other scientific theories. One immediately apparent difference between the two sets of reviewers is that the reviews that supported critical thinking skills were over 25 pages long, but two of the three Darwinist reviewers submitted reviews that were under ten pages.

It seems that these reviewers have one main concern and one main agenda: to ensure that evolution is taught dogmatically in Texas.

As a first example, in his short 7-page review, University of Texas Austin evolutionary biologist David Hillis wrote that the TEKS language should be revised to read "analyze, review, and critique examples of scientific hypotheses as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information." This missing word here is the word "theories" because Hillis wants to remove the application of this standard to scientific "theories," thereby forcing students to treat certain popular scientific theories—like Darwinian evolution—as unquestionable fact.

Hillis also implies that some students are too young to critique certain concepts, saying that "asking students in Grade 5 to analyze, review, and critique any modern scientific theory is absurd; how can any students in K- 12 be expected to evaluate the enormous body of evidence that leads to current scientific consensus?" But if we can teach students about scientific views that support the "consensus," then doesn't this mean students have the right to hear there are scientific views that question it? Also, does this imply that older students are mature enough to critique the "consensus" view? Apparently not—for as we saw even within high school, Hillis would not allow students to learn about the weaknesses of scientific "theories" that are the consensus view.

Hillis' approach will stifle critical thinking and teach students how to conform and think as dogmatists, not skeptically-thinking scientists. More problems with the Darwinist TEKS reviewers will be discussed in future posts.

Posted by Casey Luskin on November 14, 2008 3:39 PM | Permalink

Tech Puts JFK Conspiracy Theories to Rest


Eric Bland, Discovery News

Nov. 13, 2008 -- A team of experts assembled by the Discovery Channel has recreated the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Using modern blood spatter analysis, new artificial human body surrogates, and 3-D computer simulations, the team determined that the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository was the most likely origin of the shot that killed the 35th president of the United States.

"The question we were trying to answer is, given the spatter evidence in a vehicle, and knowing an individual was sitting at a particular location, is there something we could use to determine where the shot originated?" said Steve Schliebe, a blood spatter and trace evidence specialist with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, who was part of the special investigation.

While blood spatter analysis existed in the 1960s, modern innovations have greatly improved its accuracy and the amount of information that can be gleaned from drops of blood.

On Nov. 22, 1963, at 12:30 p.m. Central time, President John F. Kennedy was shot twice while traveling in his limousine through Dallas, Texas. The first shot entered Kennedy's back and exited out of his throat. A second shot entered the left side of Kennedy's head and exited out the right side, spraying a nearby officer agent and the car's interior with bodily material. Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:00 p.m. at Parkland Hospital.

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested an hour and twenty minutes after the shooting. Widely believed to have fired the shots that killed Kennedy, Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby before he could be brought to trial.

Conspiracy theories abound on the number of shots fired, the number of shooters, and the location and identity of the shooter(s). The goal of Discovery Channel's Nov. 16th special, "JFK: Inside the Target Car," was to explore the theories and determine where the shots most likely came from using modern forensic science.

A mock-up of the Dallas, Texas crime scene was set up, including the depository, the "grassy knoll," and other nearby landmarks. Artificial surrogates of Kennedy were placed in a car. Sharpshooters then shot the surrogates from the model depository, the grassy knoll, and four other plausible locations.

Schliebe, along with Tom Bevel, an independent expert forensic investigator, were brought in to examine the simulated crime scene. Both scientists had no idea what the experiment was for or that it was a reenactment of the JFK assassination.

The two experts found a simulated gunshot would to the head that closely matched the wound Kennedy suffered. Most of the simulated body material had spattered forward into the car, consistent with a shot that entered the back of the head and exited toward the front. There was some back-spatter -- material that flew back in the opposite direction of the bullet's trajectory -- but not much.

The general lack of back spatter and the preponderance of spatter in another direction are two of the clues, among others, that the investigators used to pinpoint the origin of the shots.

"After Tom and I looked at the scene, we pointed up and back away from the vehicle," said Schliebe. "Apparently that lined up perfectly with where the sharpshooter had hit the model head."

Along with advances in blood spatter analysis, another advantage modern forensic experts have is simulated body parts.

The team used some of the most advanced artificial human heads in the world for the ballistic tests. Made from a proprietary mixture by Australia-based Adelaide T&E Systems, the heads have three different materials which simulate the brain, skull and external soft tissue (skin) -- that together respond to the trauma the same way a human head would.

The simulated brain material was made from a pig-skin-derived gelatin, dyed green. The skull surrogate is made from a special vinyl ester resin filled with calcium and proprietary fibers. The artificial skin uses a polyurethane and plasticizers to mimic human skin's physical properties. The head was even custom-fitted, based on Kennedy's hat size.

"The heads they used were quite interesting," said Bevel. "They were considerably more sophisticated than anything I've seen before."

In addition to the physical environment, a virtual environment was also set up. A team from Los Angeles-based Creative Differences went to the original Dallas crime scene and took precise measurements of all the angles, distances, wind speed and directions, etc., in the area to create a 3-D model of the crime scene.

To animate it, the team looked at a video of the assassination filmed by Abraham Zapruder. The Zapruder film, as it's called, is generally believed to be the most complete video of the shooting because of its clear view of the motorcade and the height it was shot from.

Only two of the 486 Zapruder frames actually show Kennedy being shot. Computer graphics expert Doug Martin highlighted the red parts of the frames and the blood resulting from the wound, and plotted them onto the computer simulation to see where the fatal shot came from.

"We might never know if Oswald pulled the trigger, but when you look at the wind pattern, the spread of the debris, the angles and distances involved, it's consistent with a shot from the sixth floor depository," said Martin.

This kind of computer analysis has only been available for about five years, says Martin. He expects criminologists will continue to make use of 3-D crime scene simulations to help reconstruct events and gather evidence a 2-D picture alone can't reveal.

"I think this is the wave of the future," said Martin. "If we had this technology back in the '60s, I think it would have put a lot of the conspiracy theories to rest."