NTS LogoSkeptical News for 30 November 2008

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Sunday, November 30, 2008

State, Treasure Coast educators crafting guidelines to teach evolution


By James Kirley (Contact) Sunday, November 30, 2008

Open a state-approved high school biology textbook on the Treasure Coast or elsewhere in Florida and you'll find references to evolution. But until recently, state rules also told teachers not to call it by the term popularized after Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" almost 150 years ago.

"Our course description does not use 'evolution,'" said Wachera Ragland, science coordinator for Martin County Schools. "Our course description says, 'change over time.'"

The state Board of Education changed 12-year-old science standards Feb. 19 to require teaching the scientific theory of evolution in Florida for the first time. The standards passed against opposition, much of it faith-based, that contends evolution is just one way to explain the diversity of life on earth.

Teams of teachers currently are meeting all over the state to develop guidelines to teach evolution to students. Mary Gregory, St. Lucie County Schools curriculum specialist for teaching science to grades six through 12, is on one such team.

She jokingly refers to "the e-word." But Gregory is serious about drawing a line between teaching science without encroaching on religion.

"I think a lot of people are afraid that if they don't see a purpose in this existence that was predetermined by their creator, there may not be a reason to lead a moral life," Gregory said. "We have to make sure children understand that when we describe their animal existence, we are not denying their spiritual existence."

Florida legislators opposed to teaching evolution introduced bills last spring to mandate a "critical analysis" of evolution and to protect teachers who offer other explanations of biological diversity. Both failed to gain the support needed to become law.

But wording in a new education law passed last spring requires the Board of Education to adopt new academic standards by 2011. The Florida Department of Education won't say if this means revisiting the debate on teaching evolution.

"This is still being evaluated," department spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said.

The controversy is creationism as opposed to evolution, said Fran Adams, Indian River County assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

"It's pretty clear-cut in the textbooks," Adams said. "(Evolution) is presented as one of many theories, but they don't get into the other theories."


Public schools districts on the Treasure Coast and elsewhere in the state are starting the process of fulfilling a Florida Board of Education mandate to begin teaching the scientific theory of biological evolution. New Sunshine State Standards were passed in February to replace those in effect since 1996. The new standards require teaching evolution for the first time in Florida and knowledge of the subject is expected to be included in the spring 2012 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.


•The 1996 state benchmarks required students to understand that changes in the earth's climate, geology and life forms can be traced and compared. Students learned that, "earth's systems and organisms are the result of long, continuous change over time" and that mutation and natural selection are mechanisms of change. "Items (taught) will NOT refer to evolution," the benchmarks stated.

•New benchmarks adopted statewide in February state, "The theory of evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology" and that "natural selection is a primary mechanism leading to evolutionary change."

Texas education leaders at odds with scientists over the origin of life


by Kelly Flynn | The Flint Journal
Saturday November 29, 2008, 1:13 AM

It appears that everything really is bigger in Texas, including the size and scope of their mistakes.

That's my conclusion after watching the Texas State Board of Education try to wrangle creationism, or intelligent design, into their state science curriculum.

At issue is the wording of the science education standards that currently require coverage of both the strengths and weaknesses of the theory of evolution.

A majority of board members support the current language, but the science community does not. They argue that it gives creationists a toehold to push a biblical explanation for the origin of humans.

Lest you think that this lengthy battle about a bit of wording is overkill, consider Christine Comer, the Texas science curriculum director who was fired last year by Texas Education Agency adviser Lizzette Reynolds, a former Bush appointee, for simply forwarding to colleagues an informational email about an evolution lecture by Barbara Forrest, co-author of "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse."

Unfortunately, the Lone Star state does not stand alone in its bid to finesse creationism, or intelligent design, into the curriculum. It's no coincidence that board members in Florida, another state where a Bush ruled, also attempted to include intelligent design in its science curriculum.

But Texas would be a real coup because they are the second largest purchaser of textbooks nationally. As Texas goes, so goes the nation.

The argument in Texas continues, in spite of the fact that in 2005 a federal court designated intelligent design as religion, not science in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. And it is unconstitutional to promote religion in public schools.

Fossil evidence, DNA testing, and the entire science community support evolution as established science. Evolution is also consistent with the religious beliefs of most Christians.

This is not the first time that Texas education leaders have been a laughingstock. In 2000 then-governor George Bush crowed about his approach to education, which resulted in the "Texas Miracle" where test scores reportedly soared and drop-out rates plummeted under the direction of Houston school superintendent Rod Paige.

The miracle was fiction, of course. Sharpstown High School, for example, reported zero dropouts in 2001-2002, though 463 students actually dropped out.

The sham was uncovered too late, as President Bush had already appointed Paige Secretary of Education.

In fact, Texas was the model for the No Child Left Behind act, so we should know by now to run for cover when leaders there start talking smart. Texas is also the only state to allow teachers to carry guns in school.

What's hugely ironic is that leaders insist the United States is falling behind in science education.

And yet some doggedly sacrifice that science to promote their personal beliefs.

Kelly Flynn is a columnist for The Flint Journal writing about education and related topics. She's also the author of "Kids, Classrooms, and Capitol Hill", which is in bookstores now, and available online. Visit Kelly Flynn online or contact her by e-mail. Read more columns by Kelly Flynn.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Chiropractor's Work With Autistic Children Draws Attention

http://suncoastpinellas.tbo.com/content/2008/nov/29/pi-chiropractors-work-with-autistic-children-draws/ By Mark Schantz | The Suncoast News

Published: November 29, 2008

PALM HARBOR - Shawna Needham is willing to travel all the way from Ruskin to Palm Harbor twice a week to have her 4-year-old son, Ryken, cared for by a local chiropractor who uses an alternative approach to treating autism and its related ailments.

Needham said Ryken acted like any other precocious little boy until he turned 2 and received a required series of immunizations. He suddenly began to act-out impulsively, lost the ability to speak and control bodily functions.

Ryken was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder. PDD is a class of behavioral disorders that includes autism and Asperger syndrome. Children with PDD usually have trouble developing language skills and handling interactions with other people.

Traditional doctors merely wanted to put Ryken on drugs to stop him from acting out, but offered little else in the way of hope, Needham said.

A discovery

That's when Needham came across a book by actress Jenny McCarthy. In "Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism," McCarthy told about her autistic child and the hope that alternative medicine provided.

She read that some people believe vaccines traditionally given to infants and children might cause development problems. Mainstream science, however, says there is no evidence of any cause-and-effect link between vaccines or preservatives used in them and autism and related disorders.

In McCarthy's book, Needham also read of Palm Harbor-area chiropractor Lisa Marsh, a practitioner who treats autistic children at her Family Chiropractic and Natural Health Care Center, on Florida Avenue. She now is an avid supporter of alternative medicine and "Dr. Lisa."

Marsh was treating autistic children before McCarthy noted her work in the book, she said. Since the mention, however, patients from all over the Suncoast have asked for her help in treating their children.

Marsh proudly shows a photograph taken with McCarthy.

Hugs and kisses

Since Marsh began treating him, Ryken is speaking words again and is able to pay more attention to his surroundings, according to his mom. He is able to hug and give kisses again, whereas before he would just fidget, she said.

He is even able to potty train again.

Oxygen therapy in a hyperbaric chamber, biocranial adjustments and treatment with a cold laser has helped Ryken, Needham said.

Marsh said some people believe autism is caused by a spinal trauma at birth, such as the umbilical chord wrapping around the neck, which cuts off the air supply to the brain.

There are no signs at first, and then children complain about earaches and are given antibiotics that cause an imbalance in the acidity levels and the growth of bacteria or yeast in the body.

Urges caution

McCarthy also believes chemicals, such as heavy metal elements in the many inoculations given youngsters, can build up and effect how the brain matures. The actress said parents should pick and choose which inoculations their children receive.

Marsh's therapy is designed to remove heavy metals and chemical toxins from the body and readjust the spine, which allows the brain and body to heal. Patients report seeing good results for their children, she said.

Removing toxins and adjusting the spine has helped many of her patients who suffer from a variety of aliments, Marsh said. In a detoxifying footbath, patients can see the water changing colors as toxins leach from the body.

She has not tried the treatment on adult autistic patients but would be happy to be one of the first, Marsh said.

Meanwhile, she plans to meet with McCarthy when the actress and best-selling author is in town next month.

She said anyone with questions about alternative therapy for a variety of illnesses can call her office at 727-772-1966, Marsh said.

Mark Schantz can be reached at 727-815-1075 or mschantz@suncoastnews.com.

New surgeon general should back alternative medicine


By Ed Gogek

Updated: 11/29/08 6:22 AM

Alot of my patients are fed up with drugs. They're tired of having no choice but to take a pill for every problem. They ask me, "Can't we try something more natural first?"

I got my M. D. 25 years ago. And since then, I've prescribed a lot of drugs. I've also studied homeopathy and nutrition, so I can give my patients something more natural.

For me and my patients, drugs are not the only answer. And my patients are not alone in wanting a choice besides medication.

Barack Obama should heed this complaint and appoint a surgeon general who takes alternative medicine seriously.

The public is far ahead of medical experts and politicians on alternative medicine. A Harvard Medical School survey done 10 years ago found that more than 40 percent of Americans used some form of alternative medicine. It's probably higher today. The study found that Americans spent as much out of pocket for alternative treatments as they did for conventional health care.

Front-line doctors — those of us who spend all day seeing patients — are also interested in alternatives. An American Psychiatric Association official told me that when they asked their physician members what they wanted to learn, alternative medicine was high on the list. Your average doctor wants alternatives to drugs — as long as they're backed up by good research.

But doctors find it hard to learn about alternatives. We're required to get continuing education every year, but who pays for that education? According to the New England Journal of Medicine, 90 percent of the money comes from drug companies. When I go to these conferences, most of the teachers are researchers who openly disclose that they take drug company money. So, big surprise, all we learn about are the newest, the latest and, of course, the most expensive drugs.

The same Harvard study asked respondents if they'd stop taking a supplement if research showed it didn't work. Most said no. They don't trust the experts. And like many of my patients, they want an alternative to drugs.

Our next president can repair some of the mistrust of our health care system by appointing a surgeon general who uses both conventional and alternative medicine. He could even consider a naturopathic doctor.

The U. S. has four naturopathic medical schools turning out physicians trained in nutrition, oriental medicine and homeopathy. A lot of my patients see me and a naturopath, and they like us both.

The surgeon general is the nation's most visible doctor, with his own bully pulpit. By appointing a doctor who uses alternative medicine, Obama can send an important message: Drugs are not the only way to treat the sick.

Most of my patients would love it. They want a doctor who is ready to treat them with every good alternative.

Ed Gogek, M. D., is a psychiatrist in Prescott, Ariz.

Egnor shoots! He scores!


Posted on: November 29, 2008 10:47 AM, by Mike Dunford

(another own goal, of course.)

There he goes again. Creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor's latest post over at the Discovery Institute's Why's Everybody Always Picking On Me blog may have actually reached a new standard for missing the point. And, as both my loyal regular readers know, that's not an easy mark for Egnor to hit.

The current contender is his latest post in a back-and-forth that he's been having with PZ and Orac. Once again, Egnor is attempting to argue that evolutionary biology has not provided any useful insights to the field of medicine. That much is familiar ground. What's new this time is the hypothetical that he's dredged up in an attempt to prove his point. His hypothetical is long and involved, which should provide you with your first warning that the argument is perhaps not as sound as he believes:

What I'm arguing is that the truth or falsehood of Darwinian stories is of no tangible value to medicine. Consider the following example.

I would suspect that careful epidemiological studies of the British population would show that the prevalence and incidence of spina bifida increased following World War One. To my knowledge, this has not been investigated, but it would make sense if it were true, for the following reasons:

Britain suffered enormous casualties during the Great War, as did many other European nations. (I'm just using Britain as an example). It has been said, with asperity, that Britain lost a generation of men on the Western Front. Britain suffered 2,300,000 war casualties -- forty four percent of mobilized men, with 703,000 men killed in battle or by disease. On just one day -- July 1,1916 -- 19,240 British soldiers died in the battle of the Somme. The young men who died were the best of their generation -- healthy, and by definition capable of meeting the rigorous physical standards required for military service.

Of course, other British men with debilitating genetic disorders, such as men with spina bifida (which renders the afflicted congenitally paralyzed), were not in the trenches that day, because they were physically unfit for military service, or at least service on the front lines as infantrymen. It's safe to say that military age British men without spinal bifida were at greater risk of death in the war than were military age British men with spina bifida. Whatever the impediments faced by people with spina bifida -- and they face many impediments -- they were not called to serve and die in the trenches.

Spina bifida would then be a fine example of an environmental adaptation; it was protective against "acute lead poisoning" -- protective against being mowed down by German machine gun fire on the Western Front. So, assuming for argument's sake that my hypothesis about the post-war epidemiology of spina bifida is true, the genes that give rise to spina bifida conferred a selective advantage on young British men in the period 1914 to 1918, and the differential survival (and reproduction) of that age cohort would explain a (hypothetical) increase in the incidence and prevalence of spina bifida in England in the post war period.

Where to begin?

We could begin with the inanity of his example. Spina bifida is still a very serious condition that carries with it a significant risk of early death - and that's despite the development of effective neurosurgical techniques. A study of babies born with spina bifida in the UK between 1965 and 1972 reported an overall 5-year survival rate of about 37%. One of the symptoms that would have been fairly common in the surviving males is impotence. When you add in the fact that there seem to be factors beyond heredity involved, I'd doubt that there was any measurable spike in the incidence of the disease. Given the high mortality and rarity of the condition, I'd also be surprised if there was even a noticeable difference in the prevalence.

(For those of you who are not familiar with the technical use of the terms, prevalence refers to how common a particular condition is in a population, while incidence refers to how frequently new cases turn up.)

Ultimately, though, dealing with the inanity of the example is unnecessary. Egnor cheerfully admits that he doesn't actually have any idea at all if his example is actually real:

Interesting vignette, if true. I haven't a clue about its veracity.

Someone less kind and charitable than myself might point out that the last three words in that quote were entirely unnecessary, but let's move on.

We could also start things off by focusing on Egnor's characteristic lack of intellectual integrity. Orac cited both sickle-cell disease and antibiotic resistance as examples of cases where an understanding of evolution has provided useful medical knowledge. Both of these have been pointed out to Egnor before. In fact, they've been pointed out to him many, many times.

Egnor has, yet again, decided to ignore the examples that were presented to him. Instead of facing those issues head on, he cooked up an unlikely and convoluted hypothetical that - by his own admission - may have absolutely no relationship whatsoever to reality. Declining to face reality in favor of tilting with your own personally invented reality may not necessarily be the mark of a psychiatric pathology, but it's definitely not the mark of intellectual honesty, either.

But we can ignore the lack of integrity, too. After all, the fact that Egnor is apparently incapable of facing reality is not in and of itself proof that he is actually wrong.

Instead, let's assume that the hypothetical is actually true, and look at the argument that he's trying to make:

Interesting vignette, if true. I haven't a clue about its veracity. But here's the crux of my argument: military history, which is the basis for understanding this hypothetical blip in spina bifida in England in the 1920's, is obviously not essential to medical education, research, or practice as relates to spina bifida. Military history may, if my inference is true, offer an explanation for changes in population frequency of the spina bifida genotype and phenotype in post-war England, but it's not in any way essential or even relevant to the medical management or understanding of spinal bifida. It's tangential at best, and such historical vignettes, interesting and perhaps of importance to historians, are of no practical use to physicians or medical scientists.

The analogy between my military history hypothesis and Darwinian theories of the origins of disease is quite close. Darwinian explanations for disease are historical vignettes. Darwinian stories are "military history" hypotheses about the ancient struggle for survival, a characterization long employed by evolutionary biologists, and I think an apt characterization.

Here's the funny thing about his argument: a basic understanding of the principles of evolutionary biology is actually more important to understanding the "hypothetical blip" in the incidence of spina bifida than military history. In fact, there are cases where an understanding of evolutionary biology can be combined with demographic factors (like a war) to inform us about the underlying causes of a disease.

Those are actually two separate arguments, so let's take them one at a time. We'll start with the asinine assertion that military history is all that informs us about the cause of the increased incidence.

In fact, our understanding of military history can only inform us of the cause of the (hypothetical) increase if we already understand some basic principles of evolution, and some basic facts about the disease. At a minimum, we would need to know that spina bifida patients are typically unsuitable for military service, that there are hereditary factors involved in causing spina bifida in the first place, and that differential survival among individuals carrying an allele will affect the proportion of that allele in the next generation.

The first two factors relate to our understanding of the condition. The third is nothing more nor less than the central principle of evolutionary biology. Only one of those three factors is connected with the military in any way. Military history provides with an explanation for the differential survival, but that's all. If we didn't know the other stuff, the war alone would provide absolutely no explanation for the chance.

Egnor has, in short, provided another example of why an understanding of evolutionary biology is essential to the medical field known as epidemiology.

But (as the television salesman says) wait! That's not all!

Let's take Egnor's hypothetical and add an element. Let's assume, hypothetically, that we have absolutely no idea of whether or not spina bifida has any heritable component whatsoever. In such a case, the demographic changes caused by the war could be combined with our understanding of the effects of spina bifida and evolutionary biology to help answer that question.

If we knew that a particular condition rendered sufferers ineligible for military service, and saw a dramatic spike in the incidence of cases of this condition in the years following a bloody war, an understanding of evolutionary biology would allow us to make several predictions. First of all, we could predict that the condition in question was not so severe as to drastically reduce either survival to reproductive age or capacity for reproduction. Second, we could predict that the condition does, in fact, have a substantial hereditary component.

In a case like that, as in Egnor's slightly simpler hypothetical, evolutionary biology can help medical understanding.

Hearing on state school science standards rich in rhetoric


Proposal to require teaching 'strengths and limitations' of theories met with mixed reaction.

By Molly Bloom

Thursday, November 20, 2008

As the State Board of Education weighed proposed changes to how science is taught in Texas public school classrooms during a meeting Wednesday, rhetoric and linguistic nuances dominated the discussion rather than talk of test tubes and, well, science.

The revised science standards will outline what will be taught about science to every public school student in the state. Some educators speaking at a hearing during the meeting questioned the organization and depth of what students would be required to learn, but most of the public discussion focused on changes in how evolution and the scientific process would be taught.

A committee of science teachers and curriculum experts had recommended that teachers not be required to teach ideas "based upon purported forces outside of nature" and the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories.

The strengths and weaknesses language has been included in the state curriculum since 1988, and critics say it has opened the door to teaching creationism alongside evolution. Those who believe that the strengths and weaknesses language should remain say it encourages open discussion and critical thinking in classrooms.

However, the board last month appointed a six-member panel of experts to review the revised curriculum that included one of the leading proponents of intelligent design, which holds that the origins of the universe stem from a higher power, and two scientists who have said they have doubts about the theory of evolution.

A new version of the proposed curriculum released this week effectively reintroduced the requirement to teach the weaknesses of scientific theories by mandating that students "analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations" of scientific explanations.

"On the face of it ... (teaching the weaknesses) doesn't actually say anything about religion. But it's very clear to a lot of people that this opens the door and allows people to start injecting supernatural things into science classes," Houston elementary school teacher Max Brodsky told the board, which plans to adopt the new standards in March.

Publishers use the state's curriculum standards to create new science textbooks, which could be in Texas classrooms as early as 2012.

Board member Ken Mercer, who represents counties including Blanco, Caldwell, Hays and part of Travis, said such language supports academic freedom.

"These guidelines do not force you to teach anyone's favorite religion," Mercer said.

Baylor University chemistry professor Charles Garner, a member of the six-member expert panel who was nominated by board members Gail Lowe and Terri Leo , signed a petition, "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism," that was developed by the Discovery Institute, a group that promotes the idea that life is a result of an intelligent creator. (Stephen Meyer, a senior fellow and vice president of the Discovery Institute, is also on the panel.)

In his review of the revised curriculum, which will be subject to a second public hearing in January, Garner wrote: "While it is true that 'science classes should only teach science' and that non-science or religion should not be taught in science classes, the plausibility of and evidence for the more speculative scientific theories must be critically evaluated."

Almost 90 people signed up to speak at Wednesday's hearing. After a request by board Chairman Don McLeroy to avoid both applause and jeers, the crowd was fairly subdued.

But the speakers didn't hold back in their comments to the board.

Southern Methodist University anthropology professor Ronald Wetherington, a committee member who was nominated by board members Patricia Hardy and Geraldine Miller, said Wednesday that specifically requiring the teaching of theories' strengths and weaknesses would be confusing.

Wetherington said simply requiring students to learn how to analyze and evaluate scientific theories covers the same ground. "The more words you use, the more confusing it can get," he said.

Board member Cynthia Dunbar, whose district includes Bastrop and Williamson counties and part of Travis County, said the language might be helpful to teachers without advanced science educations.

"For those who might not have your training, it might give direction," she said.

But Texas Citizens for Science President Steven Schafersman told the board that the "strength and weaknesses" language was unscientific and that most students don't have the expertise to consider both strengths and weaknesses effectively.

"I suggest you let scientists write the (curriculum standards) properly and accept them," he told the board.

mbloom@statesman.com; 445-3620

Intelligent Design Rules Out God's Sovereignty Over Chance


November 22, 2008 03:36 PM EST (Updated: November 22, 2008 04:23 PM EST)

Practitioners of the "intelligent design" brand of creationism, much like Molière's Physician in Spite of Himself, not only belie the true nature of their avocation and motives, but also play fast and loose with a commonly held precept. They tacitly negate the clear and completely traditional parameters that illuminate the position of chance occurrence in our universe.

As a consequence, creationism's familiar yet totally unscriptural chimera of "accidental evolution" now lives on as the centerpiece and all-around bogeyman of intelligent design. The results of this legacy could not be sharper. Chance occurrence (randomness), whether guided or not, can be incremental, hence fully evolutionary. Design is all at once or not at all, with only minor variability possible. Perhaps it's time for advocates of this limiting position to go back to square one.

How often do we see people settle an otherwise contentious decision by tossing a coin or by drawing straws near the climax of one of those tense action movies? It seems fair to all because it's random and impartial, and most people seem to acknowledge this without any hesitation. Here's the larger issue. What proponents of so-called intelligent design have cynically omitted in their polemic is that according to Biblical tradition, chance has always been considered God's choice as well.

When Joshua divided the newly won Promised Land of Canaan among the tribes of Israel, it was done as had been specifically commanded by God through the casting of lots...in other words, by a roll of the dice. In Acts of the Apostles, the remaining apostles chose between two proposed replacements for Judas by casting lots, clearly understood as a solemn appeal for God's own choice. The Bible abounds with similar examples.

So, from this viewpoint, just how random is randomness in God's most solemn and magnificent work of creation? Today's scientists will readily tell you that in this "queerer than we can suppose" universe, as J.B.S. Haldane put it, order appears to be continually leaping forth from chaos. An uneasy boundary seems to interface certain unequivocally random initiations and their ultimately deterministic course of outcomes. Some decades ago, I heard the truly fascinating topic of randomness in our natural world beautifully unraveled in a spellbinding lecture series by Paul Weiss. I have considered it a remarkable and mysterious subject ever since.

I am, however, easily able to draw one inescapable conclusion: the chance vs. intelligence debate we are seeing today is about faith and not about science. For the skeptic, all chance can remain truly blind and so it should. For the scripturally-guided believer, however, an omnipotent God would have to be in charge of absolutely everything by definition. God as "designer" is already built into this metaphysical view of chaos, which triumphantly includes no true randomness component whatever.

Such overwhelming control would have to preside over any number of even the tiniest chance biochemical mutations and over any possible span of time. This would certainly stack the deck prior to natural selection. For truly rigorous people of the Book, there is no accidental evolution because there is no accidental anything. As is so often proclaimed in worship, God is in control. This credo should be all any believer of the precept would need to add from their own spiritual understanding in order to explain and integrate any construct based on scientific research into their world view. Everyone could be happy.

But this is not the case. Astonishing as it may seem, the stigmatization of chance as the lynchpin both of creationism and intelligent design is not only a totally unscriptural position, but it is borrowed from the atheist viewpoint. You may not ever hear this preached, but for the Bible believer, God can roll the dice infinitely and win at every turn. Much as I cringe at feeling compelled to disagree with Albert Einstein, I have to consider, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that perhaps God does play at dice with the universe, but only with those ontologically loaded dice.

I can already begin to hear some rumblings coming from the Amen Corner. "Proof text! So where's your proof text!" Okay, it's here, plain and simple, what some might call prophetic correction: "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord." (Proverbs 16:33, NASB.)

Yes, people of the era in which this line was written made their own instant gaming tables by sitting or squatting on the ground and casting lots, a game of chance equivalent to dice, perhaps on a portable game board held in their laps. Now, for those who would counter that even the devil can quote scripture, I might be willing to agree, but would have to point out that he doesn't get to write it, too, and this is just too clear a proclamation to misconstrue in any way. Every toss of the dice -- that is, every decision based on chance -- can only mean one thing when it comes to a fiercely unequivocal deity.

Accordingly, the rejection of biological evolution based essentially on the part played by chance, which appears to have become the sum and substance of intelligent design, is in fact a rhetorical chimera, an unworthy trick from those who should know better and probably hope that no one, not even their "designer," is able to catch them at it. The intelligent design movement has become an unabashedly transparent fig leaf for the urge to insert sectarian creationism into every science curriculum and text. Can any believer truly honor God with such dissimulation?

Instead of arguing disingenuously on behalf of faith that blind chance alone cannot produce such levels of order as science reveals, why don't creationists and their heirs simply state that on scriptural grounds they believe God's hand orders all chance and be done with it? That would certainly put God squarely into the picture for any who choose to agree and would obviate the need to torture science in order to prove anything at all. Simply stated, as with any casino, the house always wins.

Most critically, this would also suggest a distinct mechanism through which the "designer" might participate in guiding the physical universe. At present, intelligent design is simply a wish, not even a well-framed hypothesis. It must offer a testable interfacing mechanism between the "intelligence" and matter in order to meet the minimum threshold of being science at all. Since this has not even been hinted at, why substitute a charade of nit-picking at science for a simple and honest declaration of faith? Such a declaration would posit that what science demonstrates in the physical world also constitutes, within the limits of our understanding, precisely what God intended.

This notion that God's hand orders chance hardly represents a new viewpoint among religious scholars. Theologians have long held that what God desires to happen through chance will happen through chance. Nor is this position confined to the basic understandings of any one faith. Yet, intelligent design proponents insist on defining chance for everyone as designer-less even while science itself does not, simply because this issue crosses over into the metaphysical, beyond where physical science permits itself to go.

We're surely overdue for a Sic et Non examination of this dicey and irreductible contradiction in the creationist viewpoint, which tirelessly propels the flagellum of intelligent design as well. I will leave it to the reader to decide to what extent the aggressive promulgation of sectarian religion in science education has helped stoke the greatest blacklash against faith in anyone's recollection.

Is there a clever reason why intelligent design proponents, even those of a professed religious bent, persist in avoiding this seemingly inescapable axiom from their own songbook? Must they avoid putting God in charge of chance because it would also demonstrate once and for all that this inescapably religious precept, while perfectly legitimate for believers, does not support any insights from alternative science that need to be taught in schools?

I'm sure intelligent design proponents also realize that without their fatuous red herring, in terms of scripture, about what constitutes randomness, all that's left of this "new" anti-evolutionary argument is the same old rejection of the increasingly well-founded concept that all living things may belong to one truly amazing and ancient family. It's just the same old monkey business over again.

But that appears, when viewed honestly, to have been the real sticking point all along, right from those heady days of Darwin, Huxley and Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce. Might it be the horrific prospect of dethroning man from his cherished position as preeminent mini-god of this earth? Half a millenium ago, the outraged predecessors of those who would currently deny the progress of scientific evidence railed against the prospect of earth itself being dethroned as the dimple of the entire universe around which the sun and all the planets and stars revolved.

On the other hand, I am also amazed that scientists defending evolution fail to convincingly point out that a dead mechanical invention like a watch or a mousetrap cannot in any way explain the design process of living systems that reproduce, recycle and recombine changeable components infinitely, regardless of function. You'll never find a watch with anomalous spare gear wheels, but many animals are continually born with useless extra limbs. Life is just full of untidy surprises.

For some of us who identify ourselves as people of faith, the creationist notion that God's existence must be proved, particularly with sleight-of-hand maneuvers, is philosophically toxic as well. If such proof were ever possible to achieve, it would obviate the all-important value of faith as central to the life of the believer. It would also mean that pleasing God would forever after become stiflingly legalistic and merely as rational as searching for the best interest rates. In evangelical terms, the crassest of pragmatists might soon be storming the Pearly Gates in droves, quite possibly leaving behind them in the dust those self-doubting, compulsively conscientious and genuinely perplexed souls who have always lived and ultimately triumphed in their search for life's meaning primarily by faith rather than by sight.

Curious, isn't it, that no matter how much scientific data we add to the mix, it still isn't possible either to prove or disprove God's existence? Our great human dilemma seems as persistent as any other universal constant -- it remains forever a matter of choice....a matter of faith, and that is indeed a remarkably intelligent design.

(Originally published on www.phoebekate.com. Picture credit: Chris Lawson at www.frankenblog.


David M. White is a retired educator and developer of commercial educational media materials. A graduate of New York University, he has an M.A. in Science Education, and has served as a faculty administrator at Allan Hancock College and Oregon Institute of Technology. His most widely read web feature, written as "Professor Nemo," is A Different da Vinci Code: The Missing Pieces of Leonardo's Puzzle Point to Plain and Simple Hermeticism.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Metroplex Institute of Origin Science

Hear David Bassett Present
History's Mysteries:

From Joseph to Moses

Conventional Egyptian dates argue against the global Flood of Genesis 6-9 having occurred in the 24th century BC and Abrahamic-Covenant promises being fulfilled in accordance with a 15th-century Exodus. If you think archaeology has settled the time issues of this debate, think again! The historicity of Israel's sojourn into and exodus out of Egypt--from Joseph to Moses--lends support to a young-Earth timeframe. With the proper Hebrew understanding of specific literary structures, figures of speech, and Middle-Eastern customs, the Bible has the answer to this chronology controversy.

David V. Bassett has an MS in Geology from the University of Texas. He is Department Head of the Science Department at Ovilla Christian School and an associate at the Creation Evidence Museum.

Dr. Pepper Starcenter
12700 N. Stemmons Fwy
Farmers Branch, TX

Tuesday, December 2nd, 7:30 PM

Fabulously Observant: Genesis in the classroom


The creation/evolution debate in the United States has pitted traditionalists (including many Orthodox Jews) against those who embrace the separation of church and state (including many liberal Jews). But there is a way to teach both creation and evolution in public schools that can be embraced by people on both sides of the controversy.

In the 1987 US Supreme Court case of Edwards v. Aguillard, in a 7-2 decision, the justices ruled that the teaching of creationism in public schools violated the First Amendment ban on an establishment of religion. Ever since, secularists (then and now a minority nationally) have known that the ruling meant traditionally religious parents would not have their views represented in public schools. Did they ever pause to ask, "Wait, this seems unfair. How can we be respectful of everyone's ideas without violating the Constitution?" No way. Instead their reaction was in effect, "Whoopee! Now we can teach America's young people the Truth, no matter what nonsense they learn at home and in church."

Of course, whenever a devout conservative even expresses his viewpoint about abortion or man-woman marriage, he's accused of imposing his religion on everyone. So why is it OK for secularists to impose their viewpoint on the most innocent among us?

Not very helpfully, Christian conservatives in America have responded to the US Supreme Court rulings against creationism by promoting a fake scientific doctrine ("intelligent design") that even they don't believe in - or it would be taught, instead of creationism, in the schools their children attend.

WITHOUT CHANGING the Constitution or its interpretation by the Supreme Court, this problem can still be addressed, if we think creatively. Under present Supreme Court doctrine, a Christmas tree on public property violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Add a dreidel, a few reindeer, and some Kwanzaa candles, and suddenly the Christmas tree is constitutional. So I propose we add, in effect, the human-origins equivalent of a dreidel and some reindeer to the teaching of both creation and evolution, which would thereby becomes surely constitutional.

School districts that want to fix the imbalance in which only some parents have their views represented in the curriculum can declare, for example, that the origin of man should not be taught at all except in specially designed, interdisciplinary units for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders. During these units, students will study age-appropriate scientific, literary, anthropological, philosophical, and religious ideas about the origin of the universe, the nature of life, and where human beings come from. Subjects studied may include: the ideas of Charles Darwin, creation myths of the Maya, Lakota, Yoruba, and Norse peoples, the Genesis story and its literary and religious echoes through the centuries, the evidence for species change, and controversial aspects of the theory of evolution.

Everyone's ideas would be represented and respected, no perspectives would be hidden, and students can make up their own minds with the guidance of their parents.

Some fans of the theory of evolution have suggested that ideas about divine creation of the universe can only be legitimately introduced in the public schools if they are subjected to scientific scrutiny. I don't have a problem with that in the sort of interdisciplinary unit I'm proposing, especially if evolution is also subjected to theological scrutiny. Evolution and creation rely on two different knowledge disciplines to answer the question of where we come from. Some people find one mode of inquiry more compelling for that question; others prefer the other. As long as the two are taught side by side in interdisciplinary units exploring the many ways people have explained human origins, without treating the Genesis story as any more true than the creation myths of Australian aborigines, science fiction like Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, or natural selection and the survival of the fittest, there's no religious-establishment problem.

Doubtless, the forces on the secular Left who have had a monopoly on how the origin of man is taught in public schools for nearly a generation will never cooperate without a fight. They think their ideas are objectively true. But secularism is a minority in America, and its rivals think their own ideas are just as true. The challenge is to teach schoolchildren complicated subjects in a way that respects everyone's perspective yet passes constitutional muster. I think it can be done.


Divergent Evolution and Molecular Adaptation in the Drosophila Odorant-Binding Protein Family: Inferences from Sequence Variation at the OS-E and OS-F genes


The Drosophila Odorant-binding protein (Obp) genes constitute a multigene family with moderate gene number variation across species. The OS-E and OS-F genes are the two phylogenetically closest members of this family in the D. melanogaster genome. In this species, these genes are arranged in the same genomic cluster and likely arose by tandem gene duplication, the major mechanism proposed for the origin of new members in this olfactory-system family.

Results: We have analyzed the genomic cluster encompassing OS-E and OS-F genes (Obp83 genomic region) to determine the role of the functional divergence and molecular adaptation on the Obp family size evolution.

We compared nucleotide and amino acid variation across 18 Drosophila and 4 mosquito species applying a phylogenetic-based maximum likelihood approach complemented with information of the OBP three-dimensional structure and function. We show that, in spite the OS-E and OS-F genes are currently subject to similar and strong selective constraints, they likely underwent a divergent evolution.

Positive selection was likely involved in the functional diversification of new copies in the early stages after the gene duplication event; moreover, it might have shaped nucleotide variation of the OS-E gene concomitantly with the loss of functionally related members. Besides, molecular adaptation likely affecting the functional OBP conformational changes was supported by the analysis of the evolution of physicochemical properties of the OS-E protein and the location of the putative positive selected amino acids on the OBP three-dimensional structure.

Conclusions: Our results support that positive selection was likely involved in the functional differentiation of new copies of the OBP multigene family in the early stages after their birth by gene duplication; likewise, it might shape variation of some members of the family concomitantly with the loss of functionally related genes.

Thus, the stochastic gene gain/loss process coupled with the impact of natural selection would influence the observed OBP family size.

Author: Alejandro Sanchez-Gracia and Julio Rozas
Credits/Source: BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:323

Published on: 2008-11-27

Limited copyright is granted for you to use and/or republish any story on this site for any legitimate media purpose as long as you reference 7thSpace and any source mentioned in the story above. Please make sure to read our disclaimer prior to contacting 7thSpace Interactive. To contact our editors, visit our online helpdesk. If you wish submit your own press release, click here.

Evolution of the Mitochondrial Genome in Snakes: Gene Rearrangements and Phylogenetic Relationships


Snakes as a major reptile group display a variety of morphological characteristics pertaining to their diverse behaviours. Despite abundant analyses of morphological characters, molecular studies using mitochondrial and nuclear genes are limited.

As a result, the phylogeny of snakes remains controversial. Previous studies on mitochondrial genomes of snakes have demonstrated duplication of the control region and translocation of trnL to be two notable features of the alethinophidian (all serpents except blindsnakes and threadsnakes) mtDNAs.

Our purpose is to further investigate the gene organizations, evolution of the snake mitochondrial genome, and phylogenetic relationships among several major snake families.

Results: The mitochondrial genomes were sequenced for four taxa representing four different families, and each had a different gene arrangement. Comparative analyses with other snake mitochondrial genomes allowed us to summarize six types of mitochondrial gene arrangement in snakes.

Phylogenetic reconstruction with commonly used methods of phylogenetic inference (BI, ML, MP, NJ) arrived at a similar topology, which was used to reconstruct the evolution of mitochondrial gene arrangements in snakes.

Conclusions: The phylogenetic relationships among the major families of snakes are in accordance with the mitochondrial genomes in terms of gene arrangements.

The gene arrangement in Ramphotyphlops braminus mtDNA is inferred to be ancestral for snakes. After the divergence of the early Ramphotyphlops lineage, three types of rearrangements occurred.

These changes involve translocations within the IQM tRNA gene cluster and the duplication of the CR. All phylogenetic methods support the placement of Enhydris plumbea outside of the (Colubridae + Elapidae) cluster, providing mitochondrial genomic evidence for the familial rank of Homalopsidae.

Author: Jie Yan, Hongdan Li and Kaiya Zhou
Credits/Source: BMC Genomics 2008, 9:569

Published on: 2008-11-28

Limited copyright is granted for you to use and/or republish any story on this site for any legitimate media purpose as long as you reference 7thSpace and any source mentioned in the story above. Please make sure to read our disclaimer prior to contacting 7thSpace Interactive. To contact our editors, visit our online helpdesk. If you wish submit your own press release, click here.

Evolution Considered 'Smarter' Than Creation


Letters To The Editor

Published: November 27, 2008

"Do you believe in evolution?"


"Oh, really? I thought you would believe evolution."

"How come?"

"Well, you seem smart."

Evolution is a philosophy – a religion. Like all religions, it is believed somewhat by faith. Surely, no man was around when the universe came to be! Why, then, is evolution regarded as the "smarter" philosophy?

This is likely because evolution's followers are teaching their philosophy as science, claiming that science proves evolution. However, science cannot prove the beginning of life. The scientific method is based on observation and experimentation, both of which are impossible when speculating on the origin of the universe.

Some believe that paleontology, the study of fossils, proves evolution, since scientists date fossils to be millions of years old through radioactive dating. Radioactive dating is possible because radioactive elements decay into other elements, known as their "daughter" elements. Using the half-life of the elements, scientists can calculate the age of the fossil, if the original and final levels of the element are known.

But, many assumptions are made in the process of radioactive dating. For instance, one has to assume that no daughter elements existed in the beginning (only parent elements) and that the rate of the element's decay was constant. And it is impossible to know the original levels of the element in the fossil.

Despite evolutionist's claim that science supports evolution, there is scientific evidence against evolution. Lack of transitional form fossils, the absurdity of spontaneous generation, and the second law of thermodynamics (the law of increasing disorder) are all very damaging evidence for evolution. Since evolution is not science, it shouldn't be taught as science. Theories such as intelligent design are not allowed in many schools because they introduce "religion" into schools. But if evolution is to be taught, teachers should at least mention the philosophy's flaws. If their theory is true, why should evolutionists care?

Susan Olmsted
Bristol, Tenn. Evolution education update: November 28, 2008 Video and audio of Barbara Forrest's recent talk in Texas is now available. Plus NCSE Supporter Philip Kitcher wins a Lannan Literary Award for his Living with Darwin. And a new batch of selected content from NCSE's journal is now available on-line.


Barbara Forrest explained "Why Texans Shouldn't Let Creationists Mess with Science Education" on November 11, 2008, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Now video and audio of her talk is available on-line. The talk was sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, and the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Department of Anthropology, the Department of Biological Sciences, and the Department of Philosophy in the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University.

Forrest is a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University; she is also a member of NCSE's board of directors. She coauthored (with Paul R. Gross) Creationism's Trojan Horse (rev. ed., Oxford U.P. 2007). She also testified for the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover, and Judge Jones wrote in his ruling, "Barbara Forrest ... has thoroughly and exhaustively chronicled the history of ID in her book and other writings for her testimony in this case. Her testimony, and the exhibits ... admitted with it, provide a wealth of statements by ID leaders that reveal ID's religious, philosophical, and cultural content."

For video and audio of Forrest's talk, visit:

For information about Creationism's Trojan Horse, visit:


Philip Kitcher's Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (Oxford U.P., 2006) was the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award for Notable Book for 2008 from the Lannan Foundation, which "hopes to stimulate the creation of literature written originally in the English language and to develop a wider audience for contemporary prose and poetry." The award includes a $75,000 prize. A Supporter of NCSE, Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.

Discussing Living with Darwin in BioScience, NCSE deputy director Glenn Branch wrote that Kitcher's aim was "not only to debunk intelligent design and expound the case for evolution but also 'to respond to the concerns of the thoughtful people who are beguiled by the advertisements for intelligent design, to expose just what it is that is threatening about Darwinism, and to point to the deeper issues that underlie this recurrent conflict' ... He succeeds brilliantly."

For information about Living with Darwin, visit:

For information about the award, visit:

For Glenn Branch's comments in BioScience (PDF), visit:


Selected content from volume 28, number 1, of Reports of the National Center for Science Education is now available on NCSE's website. Featured are Barbara Forrest's commentary on the forced resignation of Chris Comer from the Texas Education Agency, NCSE's Louise S. Mead's report at a symposium aimed at training teachers how to use the latest creationist textbook, Explore Evolution, in the classroom, and Ulrich Kutschera's latest report on creationism in Germany. And there are reviews, too: David Morrison discusses the late Robert Schadewald's Worlds of Their Own and Rebecca J. Flietstra assesses Deborah B. Haarsma and Loren D. Haarsma's Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, & Evolution.

If you like what you see, why not subscribe to RNCSE today? The next issue (volume 28, numbers 5-6) is a special issue devoted to debunking the recent creationist propaganda film, Expelled, containing not only the material already to be found at Expelled Exposed, but also reports on the reception of Expelled at the box office, among critics, and in Canada; a summary of the ways in which organizations with a stake in the creationism/evolution controversy reacted to the film; a summary of the various controversies over Expelled's use of copyrighted material; and a detailed explanation of Expelled's unsuitability for the classroom. Don't miss out -- subscribe now!

For selected content from RNCSE 28:1, visit:

For Expelled Exposed, visit:

For subscription information for RNCSE, 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!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Theater Review: A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant


By Mark Lowry

According to the Church of Scientology, an Engram is a mental picture that jogs an unpleasant memory. So if that recollection happens to be viewing – or performing in – unbearably cheery and embarrassingly ill-executed kids' holiday programs, fear not. The short satirical musical A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant will not work as that particular Engram.

Instead, it will induce happy thoughts of the times, however few, you may have left a theater thinking you had just seen something unique, entertaining and wholly wonderful. That was the reaction to Circle Theatre's heavenly production of this clever musical by Kyle Jarrow, based on a concept by Alex Timbers.

The idea behind Scientology Pageant is simple (that's appropriate for children's pageants): Tell the story of founder L. Ron Hubbard as if it were a holiday Christ story. Except that instead of a manger in Bethlehem, it's a stable in Tilden, Nebraska; and this hero makes his biggest discoveries in Hawaii, New York City and China, as well as on a raft in the Pacific. And the ending is similar to J.C.'s story: Hubbard is tried (although he has star witnesses like John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Tom Cruise) and lives on through his followers.

Make no mistake; this show pokes bigtime fun at its subject. However, it avoids the mean-spirited trappings that sometimes plague religious satire. Hubbard, whom the show paints as a man always asking questions, might ask "how?"

Jarrow's solution was to comprise the cast of youths. This allows for (somewhat) earnest storytelling, and gives adults in the audience the teaspoon of winking humor they crave.

If, in director Jaime Castañeda's staging, it occasionally looks a little rough and under-rehearsed, well, that's the point. Who would believe an immaculately polished children's pageant? Oddly, it lends credibility when an actor enters the stage still adding a costume piece, or pointedly reads an occasional line from a cue card. (Hey, there are a lot of big and/or bizarre words here for kids to memorize – "Dianetics," "reactive mind," "Xenu," "Thetan," "E-Meter," "Sea Org," "galactic"?)

To the credit of 27-year-old Castañeda (who served as an assistant director for the current Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow), Circle's eight-actor ensemble (ages 10-14) handles the hour-long show's tasks – line memorization, deadpan delivery, innumerable costume changes and hilariously low budget-looking puppetry – with aplomb. They're all adorable, but Tayia Anderson, Riley Morrison and Madeline Paddock stand out among the performers playing multiple roles. As Hubbard, Cayman Mitchell is to be commended for not only learning the bulk of the show's lines, but performing them with leading-man authority.

Costumer Barbara C. Cox adds many clever touches, my favorite being the sheep in the "nativity scene," covered with a wool-side-out human coat. Mark Evan Walker's set is simple, with swirly chalk drawings on the floor and walls. Choreographer Elise Lavallee has riddled the show's early numbers with all the clichés of children's musical showcase – outspread arms, joined hands – which is perfect for this.

At the end, the kids revive the song "Hey, It's a Happy Day." But this time there are no uplifted arms or animated faces, as if they have been brainwashed by some unstoppable force (could it be … Thetan?). It's a moment that is – like Hubbard's description of "the gift of Scientology" – priceless.

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant continues through December 20 and tickets can by purchased by calling 817-877-3040.

Mark Lowry is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covered the North Texas theater scene at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 10 years. Follow his Twitter feed at www.twitter.com/TweetTheater.

Misleading Media Coverage Of Medicine


ScienceDaily (Nov. 26, 2008) — Media coverage of clinical trials does not contain the elements readers require to make informed decisions. A comparison of the coverage received by pharmaceutical and herbal remedy trials, reported in the open access journal BMC Medicine, has revealed that it is rarely possible for the lay public to assess the credibility of the described research.

Tania Bubela from the University of Alberta, Canada, led a team of researchers who investigated 201 pharmaceutical and 352 herbal remedy newspaper articles, and studied the 48 pharmaceutical and 57 herbal remedy clinical trials that the stories referred to. For both complementary and mainstream medicine, stories under-reported risk and lacked any disclosure of trial funding or scientists' conflicts of interest. Bubela said, "There were significant errors of omission of basic information such as dose, sample size and methods for randomized clinical trials. In addition, there is an under-reporting of risks, especially in the context of herbal remedies".

The main theme of almost all articles on pharmaceutical clinical trials was the trial itself. This contrasted with articles on herbal remedy clinical trials where 63.6% focused on the trial and the other third focused on other issues such as the myriad uses for any particular herb. The main benefit cited in almost all articles was improved health or treatment options. The study found that the media is overly reliant on narratives from satisfied patients, researchers, clinicians and patient groups - without disclosing these people's financial ties to industry and conflicts of interest.

According to Bubela, "The study is not all bad news for the media. Slowly they are beginning to report on the welcome trend of evidence based clinical trials for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), including herbal remedies. Unfortunately, the media still rely for their sources on high quality medical journals, which are more likely to report negative results about CAM and positive results about pharmaceuticals, The clinical trials in the study showed no difference in quality between herbal remedy and pharmaceutical trials, but CAM was still reported on more skeptically".

Healthcare receives significant media attention, and CAM is no exception. Given the continued public interest in the multi-billion dollar business of CAM, this media attention is hardly surprising. The researchers conclude, "Given this well established and expanding market, it is time for journalists and editors to experiment with improving content without necessarily sacrificing narrative themes such as human interest stories. A change for the better is unlikely to result in a reduced public appetite for health news - an appetite which is increasingly sophisticated and desirous of high quality information".

Journal reference:

Tania Bubela, Heather Boon and Timothy Caulfield. Herbal Remedy Clinical Trials in the Media: a Comparison with the Coverage of Conventional Pharmaceuticals. BMC Medicine, 2008, 6:35 DOI: 10.1186/1741-7015-6-35
Adapted from materials provided by BMC Medicine, via AlphaGalileo.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Texas scientists overwhelmingly reject antievolution arguments


November 17th, 2008 Texas General 2008

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 (PDF), 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 is 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."

Professors debate creationism's place in public schools


Lauren Rausch and Rylee Nye
Issue date: 11/25/08 Section: News

Two geology professors signed a petition to promote teaching evolution in public school science classrooms and prevent creationism from slipping into the curriculum.

Arthur Busbey, an associate professor of geology, and Helge Alsleben, an assistant professor of geology, put their name on the petition.

The petition is aimed at a committee from the Texas State Board of Education, which is revising the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum standards for science classrooms in 2008-09. These standards are for public school classrooms from kindergarten through 12th grade, a task that arises every 10 years.

The 21st Century Science Coalition released the petition in September to remove the phrase, "strengths and weaknesses" from the public school guidelines for science classrooms in Texas in reference to the study of scientific theories, sparking a debate between professors.

As of Monday, 588 scientists at Texas universities and 777 other scientists across the state have signed the petition.

According to the petition, evolutionary theory is imperative to teaching biological sciences and evidence exists that support it beyond question.

The curriculum should "encourage valid critical thinking and scientific reasoning by leaving out all references to 'strengths and weaknesses,'" according to the petition.

Busbey said he signed the petition to prevent putting religion in the classroom.

"I want to make sure that students taking science in Texas are actually taking science," Busbey said. "The threat of having religious doctrine inserted into science curricula is something that, in my opinion, is intolerable in the modern world."

Alsleben said even though he is a strong believer in evolution, he signed the petition as a way to influence science classrooms for better teaching, not necessarily for evolution itself.

Alsleben said the current guidelines, which include examining the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theory, could alter the credibility of science in the United States on an international level.

As a native German, he said the inclusion of intelligent design in science classrooms has been brought up as an issue that shapes views of American science education for his colleagues in Germany.

However, other faculty members have conflicting views.

Steve Woodworth, professor of history and self-proclaimed creationist, said serious science students are not going to delve into what is taught in kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms when choosing a college.

Woodworth said he knows and appreciates both professors who signed the petition but respectfully disagrees.

"In order to promote critical thinking, they choose to promote one side?" Woodworth said. "I don't agree with that."

Woodworth said he supports academic freedom where teachers are able to decide what happens in their own classrooms.

Charles Hannon, professor of computer science, said he also opposes the petition. He said this issue is not one of different attitudes of how teaching should be done, but a clash of worldviews.

"The real issue is that students are not coming into our science programs at TCU with sufficient preparation," Hannon said. "So, I applaud their desire to try to fix that problem, but the way they are trying to fix the problem is really being driven more by an agenda than a real chance of being successful of doing that."

Hannon said he also opposes the statement made by the petition that faith should be left at home.

"Everything is based on some level of faith," Hannon said. "There are sets of prerequisites that determine whether you believe in creationism or evolution. Those sets of presuppositions are going to determine not only what you are willing to accept, but also how you take your data, what you choose to be valid and invalid data."

While this controversial issue has sparked debate, Alsleben and Busbey both said they do not believe they put their reputations on the line by signing the petition.

Busbey said he based this on his belief that evolution is scientific fact, while Alsleben said he had no problem attaching his name to something that made a strong case for evolution.

Hannon said in the spirit of scientific inquiry, both sides should be studied.

"The point is when Einstein came along, everybody believed in Newton, and Einstein had to have the guts to go against that," Hannon said. "Openness and willingness to accept different viewpoints is always useful in science."

AP analysis: Medicaid pays for risky, unapproved drugs


The government is paying millions for risky medications that have never been reviewed for safety and effectiveness but are still covered under Medicaid, an Associated Press analysis of federal data has found.


Associated Press Writers

WASHINGTON — The government is paying millions for risky medications that have never been reviewed for safety and effectiveness but are still covered under Medicaid, an Associated Press analysis of federal data has found.

Taxpayers have shelled out at least $200 million since 2004 for such drugs. Yet the Food and Drug Administration says unapproved prescription drugs are a public health problem, and some unapproved medications have been linked to dozens of deaths.

Millions of private patients are taking them as well, and their availability may create a false sense of security.

The AP analysis found that Medicaid, which serves low-income people, paid nearly $198 million from 2004 to 2007 for more than 100 unapproved drugs. Data for 2008 were not available but unapproved drugs still are being sold. The AP checked the medications against FDA databases, using agency guidelines to determine if they were unapproved. The FDA says there may be thousands of such drugs on the market.

The medications are mainly for common conditions like colds and pain. They date back decades, before the FDA tightened its review of drugs in the early 1960s. The FDA says it is trying to squeeze them from the market, but conflicting federal laws allow the Medicaid health program for low-income people to pay for them.

Medicaid officials acknowledge the problem, but say they need help from Congress to fix it. The FDA and Medicaid are part of the Health and Human Services Department, but the FDA has yet to compile a master list of unapproved drugs, and Medicaid - which may be the biggest purchaser - keeps paying.

"I think this is something we ought to look at very hard, and we ought to fix it," said Medicaid chief Herb Kuhn. "It raises a whole set of questions, not only in terms of safety, but in the efficiency of the program - to make sure we are getting the right set of services for beneficiaries."

At a time when families, businesses and government are struggling with health care costs and 46 million people are uninsured, payments for questionable medications amount to an unplugged leak in the system.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has asked the HHS inspector general to investigate.

That unapproved prescription drugs can be sold in the United States surprises even doctors and pharmacists. But the FDA estimates they account for 2 percent of all prescriptions filled by U.S. pharmacies, about 72 million scripts a year. Private insurance plans also cover them.

The roots of the problem go back in time, tangled in layers of legalese.

It wasn't until 1962 that Congress ordered the FDA to review all new medications for effectiveness. Thousands of drugs already on the market were also supposed to be evaluated. But some manufacturers claimed their medications were grandfathered under earlier laws, and even under the 1962 bill.

Then, in the early 1980s, a safety scandal erupted over one of those medications. E-Ferol, a high potency vitamin E injection, was linked to serious reactions in some 100 premature babies, 40 of whom died.

In response, the FDA started a program to weed out drugs it had never reviewed scientifically. Yet some medications continued to escape scrutiny.

Sometimes, the medications do not help patients. In other cases, the FDA says, they have made people sicker, maybe even killed them. This year, for example, the FDA banned injectable versions of a gout drug called colchicine after receiving reports of 23 deaths. Investigators found the unapproved drug had a very narrow margin of safety, and patients easily could receive a toxic dose leading to complications such as organ failure.

Critics say the FDA's case-by-case enforcement approach is not working.

"The FDA does not appear to have a systematic mechanism to report these drugs out," said Jon Glaudemans, senior vice president of Avalere Health, a health care industry information company, "and there doesn't seem to be a systematic process by which health insurance programs can validate their status. And everyone is pointing the finger at someone else as to why we can't get there."

In most cases, doctors, pharmacists and patients are not aware the drugs are unapproved.

"Over the years, they have become fully entrenched in the system," said Patti Manolakis, a Charlotte, N.C., pharmacist who has studied the issue. Only a few unapproved drugs are truly essential and should remain on the market, she added.

Tackling the problem is made harder by confusing - and sometimes conflicting - laws, regulations and responsibilities that pertain to different government agencies.

Medicaid officials said their program, which serves the poor and disabled, is allowed to pay for unapproved drugs until the FDA orders a specific medication off the market. But that can take years.

Compare that with Medicare, the health care program for older people.

Medicare's prescription program is not supposed to cover unapproved drugs. Medicare has purged hundreds of such medications from its coverage lists, but it continues to find others.

It might be easier to sort things out if the FDA compiled a master list of unapproved drugs, but the agency hasn't done so. FDA officials say that would be difficult because many manufacturers do not list unapproved products with the agency. Yet, the AP found many that were listed - a possible starting point for a list.

Among the drugs the AP's research identified were Carbofed, for colds and flu; Hylira, a dry skin ointment; Andehist, a decongestant, and ICAR Prenatal, a vitamin tablet. Medicaid data show the program paid $7.3 million for Carbofed products from 2004 to 2007; $146,000 for Hylira; $4.8 million for Andehist products, and $900,000 for ICAR.

Grassley said the system is failing taxpayers and consumers.

"The problem I see is bureaucrats don't want to make a decision," Grassley said. "There is no reason why this should be such a house of mirrors when so much public money is being spent." Grassley is considering introducing legislation to ensure that consumers are told when a medication is unapproved.

FDA officials say they tell Medicaid and Medicare when the agency moves to ban an unapproved drug, so the programs can stop paying.

"The situation is complicated by the fact that Medicaid and Medicare have a different regulatory regime than FDA does," said FDA compliance lawyer Michael Levy. "There are products that we may consider to be illegally marketed that could be legally reimbursed under their law."

The FDA began its latest crackdown on unapproved drugs two years ago and has taken action against nine types of medications and dozens of companies. Typically, the agency orders manufacturers to stop making and shipping drugs, and it also has seized millions of dollars' worth of medications. But federal law does not call for fines for selling unapproved drugs, and criminal prosecutions are rare.

Some manufacturers of unapproved drugs say their products predate FDA regulation and are "grandfathered in."

"These are drugs that don't require an FDA approval," said Bill Peters, chief financial officer of Hi-Tech Pharmacal in Amityville, N.Y. "These are products with active ingredients that have been on the market for a long time." The company is moving away from older products, Peters said, and its new market offerings are FDA-approved.

Levy said the FDA is skeptical that any drugs now being sold are entitled to "grandfather" status. To qualify, they would have to be identical to medications sold decades ago in formulation and other important aspects.

The agency is targeting drugs linked to fraud, ones that do not work and, above all, those with safety risks. While the crackdown has helped, it does not appear to have solved the problem.

The gout drug banned by the FDA this February is not the only recent case involving safety problems.

Last year, the FDA banned unapproved cough medicines containing hydrocodone, a potent narcotic. Some had directions for medicating children as young as age 2, although no hydrocodone cough products have been shown to be safe and effective for children under 6.

In a 2006 case, the agency received 21 reports of children younger than 2 who died after taking unapproved cold and allergy medications containing carbinoxamine, an allergy drug that also acts as a powerful sedative. Regulators banned all products that contained carbinoxamine in combination with other cold medicines.

"We as Americans have a belief that all the prescription drugs that are available to us have been reviewed and approved by the FDA," said Manolakis, the pharmacist. "I think the presence of these drugs shows we have a false sense of security."


On the Net: FDA's unapproved drugs page: http://www.fda.gov/cder/drug/unapproved_drugs/default.htm Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

"David and Goliath" City Found in Israel?


Mati Milstein in Tel Aviv for National Geographic News

November 21, 2008

The remains of an ancient gate have pinpointed the location of the biblical city Sha'arayim, say archaeologists working in Israel.

In the Bible young David, a future king, is described as battling Goliath in the Elah Valley near Sha'arayim.

The fortified gate at the Elah Fortress—the second to be found at the site—proves the existence of Sha'arayim, which means "two gates" in Hebrew, said Hebrew University archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel.

"All the sites from this period uncovered so far had only one gate. We have two gates and this is very unusual," Garfinkel said.

The gate, constructed of stones weighing up to ten tons, is located on the site's eastern side, facing Jerusalem.

Evidence of King David

The discovery is the second recent find to be made at the Elah Fortress—known as Khirbet Qeiyafa in Arabic—which is located near the present-day Israeli city of Bet Shemesh.

In October, Garfinkel revealed a 3,000-year-old pottery shard with text believed to be Hebrew—then hailed as the most important archaeological discovery in Israel since the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Initial carbon-14 dating of olive pits found at the site, as well as analysis of pottery remains, placed the text to between 1000 and 975 B.C.—the time King David would have lived.

Garfinkel believes the discovery provides further evidence that the fortified city or outpost was part of a centralized governmental system administered by King David, head of the Kingdom of Israel.

The fortress is the first site found from the Iron Age in what was once territory controlled by King David.

Sha'arayim is also mentioned three times in the Bible and is twice linked to David. "Everything comes together—the geography, the Bible, and the radiometric dating. It's no coincidence," Garfinkel said.

Other archaeologists received news of the second gate's discovery with interest, but they warned of jumping to conclusions.

Amos Kloner, an Israel studies professor at Bar Ilan University, once served as district archaeologist around the Elah site but is not involved in the current excavations.

"This is an initial idea, all aspects of which must be examined," he said. "[But] it doesn't matter if there is a second gate … This provides no indication of a Judean population there."

It's not known whether the Judeans or the Philistines controlled the strategic fortress overlooking the Elah Valley.

Team leader Garfinkel believes the site was most likely the westernmost outpost maintained by the Kingdom of Judea, which controlled land in southwest Asia and Palestine and was a predecessor to the Kingdom of Israel.

No Proof

Israel Knohl, also not involved in the Elah excavations, is a Biblical studies expert at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"The main problem with this site is that we still need unequivocal proof that it was a city of Judeans," Knohl said.

The discovery of the second gate "is of secondary importance … At the moment, we cannot determine with certainty this was Sha'arayim or that it was a Judean city."

Scholars know almost nothing of life in Sha'arayim.

"If you ask me what life was like even in Jerusalem during the time of King David, that we can't say," Knohl said. "When it comes to smaller [and less important] locations, we simply don't know."

Garfinkel said he will continue to explore the Elah site in search of further evidence.

"Maybe we'll find an inscription on the gate indicating who built the city: 'I David, son of Yishai, built this city,'" he said with a laugh.

Woo in Review: HOODWINKED


Written by Alison Smith
Tuesday, 25 November 2008 00:00
(Conning soon in a theatre near you)

Between them, the cast members of Hoodwinked have over one hundred and twenty years of experience, and it totally shows. However, this would not be one of my reviews if I didn't snarkily type in at least one controversial point to spark the flurry of enraged comments I have come to love so much (mostly for driving me more easily into the liquor bottle), so don't worry. We'll get there.

Hoodwinked was produced by Michael Mills of Mills Entertainment and co-produced by BASE Entertainment. I assume Michael Mills is an evil genius that sits in the back room of the theatre in a swivel chair, stroking a cat trained to kill (whose name, in my mind, is Mr. Winklepants), cackling maniacally to himself. I assume this because the show manages, even after seeing it twice as I have, to shock and surprise me, and ensure my eyes never leave the stage.

Hoodwinked seems to be the type of show that one attends blindly, expecting the same sort of stage magic that has caused doves to hail down like feathered missiles in theatres around the world for hundreds of years. If you expected that, prepare to be proven wrong.

The show consists of four entertainers – Bob Arno, pickpocket; Todd Robbins, The King of New York Con Men; Richard Turner, card mechanic; and Banachek, psychological manipulator. And when the four men first hit the stage grinning and pointing at the audience, you get the sensation that the people around you might be rolling their eyes and wondering if the cast is going to try and sell them a used car.

And because of this sentiment, ha ha, they leave themselves so very vulnerable.

The show is divided into segments designed for each of the entertainers, so that you are, in effect, getting a little mini-show or two from each of them. Todd Robbins (who you may have seen at TAM) introduces you, during each segment, to one of his "friends" - a con artist that will more than likely leave you standing on stage, in a cloud of embarrassment, wondering where your wallet has gone.

"We operate very much like a real crew," Robbins said, "... First, the roper, who turns them over to the inside men. The others do the heavy lifting."

Robbins is a smooth talker, hilarious, and has a stroke of evil that makes one wonder if he has his own swivel chair as well, and he relaxes the audience with a jokey trick on a volunteer that may include peanuts. Or possibly coins.

No matter what he does, though, he charms the audience into feeling safe; like his antics are those of a kindly gentleman who has offered to play you a game of fifty-two pickup.

His knowledge of 'real crews,' however, made me a little nervous.

"You never conned anyone?" I asked, wondering if I should be re-checking my wallet.

"Well, I'm not saying THAT," Robbins said with a laugh. I eyed my purse, and managed to restrain myself from checking the contents.

Robbins has been involved with deception for years, and was interested in more than just how tricks were done. He was introduced to the world of carnivals and circuses, and his talents include the ability to eat a light bulb, and to hammer nails into his nose.

I asked him if he had ever hurt himself doing either, and he said he had been "pretty lucky." I checked to make sure he only has two nostrils, and have to say I agree.

Robbins has an unparalleled enthusiasm for the fun of his job, which is illustrated by his willingness to share the joke with everyone.

"I started putting a TV project together a number of years ago about con artists," he said, "... we ended up doing three DVDs of how to scam your friends."

This caught my attention, as I have a sincere interest in scamming my friends, and the first DVD is called How to Win a Free Beer. Of course, I asked for details.

"People spend a lot of money for a unique experience," he said, and then went on to tell me about one scam that involves a peanut, a bar, and beer, glorious beer. Since my enthusiasm to share this information is tempered by the fact that I plan to scam you all into buying me beers at the next TAM, I won't be sharing. But if you buy the DVDs, you can see for yourself.

After Robbins softened the audience up a bit, Bob Arno took the stage.

When I first heard that one of the entertainers in Hoodwinked was a pickpocket, I wasn't all that impressed. So, some guy was going to take wallets off some idiots in the audience. Big deal. I can now safely say that I was completely wrong, and that any time Arno is within fifty feet of me, I will constantly be looking down to make sure I'm still wearing pants (even though, thankfully, he never removed any from anyone).

"We are giving a very edgy show," Arno said.

Yeah, no kidding.

I believe, absolutely, that Bob Arno can steal anything off anyone. He started out as a journalist with an interest in conniving arts, and branched out into entertainment. He has worked with law enforcement for eighteen years, has caught pickpockets around the world on video, investigates identity theft, and works in corporate security. He has, in other words, all the experience required to be a very, very bad man.

And yet, he isn't. One of the things that is so compelling about Hoodwinked is that it is a series of individuals who have the ability to lie, cheat, manipulate, and steal from everyone. They all have the components of criminal masterminds, and yet they choose to take the stage instead of robbing us rubes, and show us how it's done. And, speaking to each of them, you might discover that they find the very idea of doing so distasteful.

Arno said that on Saturday morning, on the way to NBC Studios for an interview with the Weekend Today Show, he was unhappy to see at least five tarot card and/or fortune telling facilities within two blocks "even though it [fortune telling] is a very deceitful practice." When he said this, it was with an air of calm nobility, as though he was talking about people who pick their noses in public.

But Arno is not as calm about it as you would suppose from his demeanor. He has a blog called "Thiefhunters in Paradise," where he exposes con men and scam artists, and discusses all sorts of fascinating things like redflagging – isolating behavior that deviates from the norm and drawing conclusions from it. He is, without doubt, out to educate, and believes Hoodwinked is an extension of that.

"Every single one of the four entertainers will touch on information that you have seen on the front page," he said. These might include breaches of medical records, identity theft, and fakes and frauds of every variety.

And we are slyly being educated throughout the course of the show. When swiping every possible item off his volunteers on the stage, Arno makes sure the audience can see what has happened – even if we aren't quite positive how he did it. And while guiltily laughing at the man who has just had his suspenders secretly commandeered, we are also thinking of ways to be safer in the future. And learning to keep touching our pockets if anywhere near Bob Arno.

Next to take the stage is Banachek, who, from his wonderful performances at TAM, many of us have already come to know and love. And yet no matter how many times I see him on a stage, I still find myself wondering "What the hell just happened?" when the psychological manipulation takes hold.

And it will take hold of you, too.

It is no surprise at all that Banachek is able to perform the feats he does; like yanking the mere thought of a card out of a volunteer's brain – at the tender age of eighteen, he was already, under the tutelage of James Randi, fooling scientists into believing he had psychic abilities.

I think most of the audience sort of believed it as well. In the entire rest of the show, the audience was fairly silent outside of laughter and hooting and gasps of surprise. During Banachek's portion, however, I could hear people in the audience saying, "That is so fake."

Well, of course it's fake. That's kind of the point. But I think what they meant was that his "illusion of a sixth sense" is so impressive they simply could not come up with an explanation for what was happening outside of, "He must know all those volunteers personally."

And, though I do believe that Banachek would go pretty far to manipulate his audience, I find the idea that he's chartering twenty people around the country kind of difficult to believe.

But wasn't he ever tempted to use his abilities to become a new and improved Uri Geller?

"I guess it was because of Randi I didn't," he said, "... Also, I was a little upset when I found out it was all a hoax... I had wasted hours trying to bend a pin and convincing myself it was geniune."

Speaking of bending things...

Even if you have seen Banachek's show before, Hoodwinked offers new manipulations; new craftiness. And there was a fun addition that I hadn't seen before and really liked, which I have termed "XXXTREME MTLBNDING," and involves twelve inch long steel spikes.

"It's different; it's unique," Banachek said, "Normally when I go onstage, I have a million things in my pockets."

When he said this, I of course wondered WHAT he had in his pockets, but I was too polite to ask.

But won't he miss performing alone?

"I've been doing the same stuff for years and years," he said, "and now I get to be creative."

Hoodwinked isn't about one person trying to get the attention of the audience – it's about working together and creating a whole.

It's also about being completely entranced by the work of people who are so skilled that the amount they practice makes me wonder if they all suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Particularly Richard Turner, "The Cheat."

Richard Turner started working with cards at the age of seven, and has never stopped. He figured out ways of controlling the outcome of a game, and by the age of twenty-one was dealing seconds, centers, and bottoms. Which are terms that made no sense to me before seeing Hoodwinked, but I'm going to start using them in casual conversation as I like the sound of "I'm dealing my bottom."

During the show, he was able to (using volunteer shuffled decks) deal winning hands in Stud, Hold 'Em, and Blackjack to a position chosen by the volunteers. He also cut cards to a point of their choosing with no hesitation. He is scarily accurate.

I would think that being The Cheat would make everyone afraid of you, and that it would be hard to ever have your friends over for Poker Night, but Turner was lucky in that he had a close friend and mentor, sleight-of-hand master Dai Vernon.

And it turns out that people aren't that afraid of playing cards with Turner – when he worked on a riverboat, people were always approaching him, out of an apparent need to get rid of their money as quickly as possible, for games.

"Some people just wanted to say they got Beat by The Cheat," Turner said.

But these weren't people dropping ten bucks on a game. "Could they not find a slot machine?" I wondered to myself, "Why would they do that?"

Turner smiled. "They're so stupid," he said. But it wasn't in a malicious way. It was with the tone of someone who knows their level of skill which, in his case, is like being The God of Cards.

After talking to him, it's no wonder. He has dealt seconds forty-three million times in practice alone. I didn't say anything, but was internally shocked that in addition to spending that much time (14 hours per day) practicing, he had also counted every deal. Additionally, his son is named Asa Spades. Seriously. I asked Asa if his name was a good thing or a bad one and, thankfully, he said "A good one."

Turner wasn't content to only be the most blatantly awesome person on the planet when it came to cards. He went out and became a master of something else as well – martial arts. He holds a fifth-degree black belt in karate.

"I loved the adrenaline rush," he said, "I would get on a ten-story building... and hold myself out [from a pole] horizontal to the ground... with only the strength of my arms."

It's probably a good thing, too. Once, when he was working at Billy Bob's in Ft. Worth, Texas, an angry card player pulled a gun on him.

When I imagine the scene that ensued, it's sort of like those parts in Looney Tunes cartoons when the Tasmanian Devil gets caught up with another character.

I have this deep, internal hope that Hoodwinked will eventually combine Turner's talents, so that in addition to XXXTREME MTLBNDING we'll also have XXXTREME POKER, wherein Turner will cheat the volunteers and, if they lose, leap to his feet and beat their asses.

Turner, by the way, is blind. And he can beat you at cards a million times in a row (and will probably count each one of the times) and then, I imagine, kill a man with his pinky.

So, that's Hoodwinked for you. An amazing show with an amazing cast. A group so skilled that if it's anywhere near you, you should go see it. Not just because it's so much fun, but because you will probably never, in your entire life, ever see another group of people so dedicated, so masterful, and so kind.

But if you do go, check afterwards and make sure you're still wearing your pants.

HOODWINKED: 5 out of 5 stars.

Skeptical Further Reading (and Watching):

The Modern Con Man by Todd Robbins

Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams While Traveling by Bob Arno

Psychological Subtleties 2 by Banachek

A ton of DVDs about cards by Richard Turner