NTS LogoSkeptical News for 5 March 2010

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings


Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Creationism could slip into science classes

http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/creationism-could-slip-into-science-classes-20100303-pj4d.html

ANNA PATTY

March 4, 2010

The draft national curriculum does not prohibit the teaching of creationism in schools, raising questions about whether this will open the door to its promotion as a science in classrooms.

The NSW Board of Studies has explicitly ruled out the teaching of creation theory from the Bible as a science, however it allows the teaching of spiritual perspectives on creation in science classes, as long as they are not dressed up as scientific or used to substitute any curriculum content, such as the teaching of evolution.

Greens MP John Kaye said he did not oppose discussion of Aboriginal Dreamtime or Christian explanations of the world's origins in science classrooms, as long as they were presented as non-scientific beliefs.

However, while the NSW curriculum explicitly required schools to present and ''discuss evidence that present-day organisms have evolved from organisms in the distant past'' and to ''relate natural selection to the theory of evolution'', the draft national curriculum ''was remarkably silent on the connection between natural selection and the evolution of ancient species into modern forms''.

"[The state curriculum] leaves open no wriggle room to slip in religiously based views on the origin of species as science,'' Dr Kaye said.

"The draft national curriculum has left open loopholes that would allow the teaching of intelligent design and old earth creationism as science.

"While the draft national curriculum has all the right words such as the fossil history of five-fingered limbs and selection pressures, it lacks the NSW curriculum's iron-clad instruction that natural selection and evolution are the driving force behind the diversity of species.''

Dr Kaye said the reference to Dreamtime stories in the draft Australian curriculum had not encouraged confusion between belief and science. He said the existing NSW curriculum contained references to Aboriginal cultural perspectives, without raising any such confusion.

Some NSW education authorities were surprised yesterday that Barry McGaw, chairman of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, had moved to remove the reference to Aboriginal Dreamtime stories as an example of cultural understandings of the natural environment from the draft national science curriculum for students in kindergarten to year 10.

Professor McGaw said it was not necessary to prohibit the teaching of creationism as science in the national curriculum.

''We are not writing prohibitions,'' he said. ''Our curriculum will not justify teaching creationism.

''We are saying what is science. It is not our intention that intelligent design or other [metaphysical] explanations of origins be taught as part of science. Schools can teach them if they want, but not as part of science.''

Stephen O'Doherty, who heads Christian Schools Australia, said he did not support the teaching in schools of a literal interpretation of God's creation as science. However, the existing NSW syllabus did not preclude discussion of a non-scientific biblical perspective of the world's creation in science classes.

''We believe science as evidence-based inquiry must be taught. We have no quibble with teaching science,'' he said.


Monday, March 01, 2010

Why's George Clayton, of North Dallas High, Running for State Board of Ed? Because It Needs "An Educator," Dang It.By Patrick Williams, Friday, Feb. 26 2010 @ 3:57PMComments (7) Categories: Edumication News http://blogs.dallasobserver.com/unfairpark/2010/02/sboe_candidates_dudes_seriousl.php

After a couple of weeks playing phone tag, Unfair Park finally managed to connect with George M. Clayton, the District 12 State Board of Education candidate opposing incumbent Geraldine "Tincy" Miller in Tuesday's GOP primary. Clayton has been something of a mystery man to the Republican Party folk and state board watchers we've spoken with, and we wanted to ask him why he's running.

"I think the state board needs an educator," replied Clayton, 60, an academic coordinator and English administrator at North Dallas High School.

Clayton said he particularly incensed by the "stranglehold that standardized testing has on education in Texas."

Says the teacher, "In spite of all the lies you hear from some those [board] members and members of local ISDs, teachers do teach to the TAKS test, and that's all they do. And the reason they do that is that if they don't do well on the TAKS test teachers are threatened and stressed out constantly under the threat of losing their jobs."

Texas student are required to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills -- or TAKS -- test to graduate high school or be promoted in grades 3, 5 and 8. It's being replaced by a new, similar exam, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) in 2011. (Education bureaucrats are like the military in their love of unwieldy acronyms.)

Complaints that education in Texas has been reduced to "teaching to the test" are common, particularly among teachers, but there's one problem with Clayton running for the State Board of Education on an anti-standardized testing platform: The SBOE has precious little to do with the TAKS or STAAR. The exams are mandated by the Legislature and developed by the Texas Education Agency. The board's role is oblique, at best: It designs the classroom curricula that will be eventually be covered by the tests.

And it's the raucous battles over curricula standards that have brought attention in recent years to a board that once was a quiet little backwater in Austin, as a group of seven Christian conservatives have led battles over sex education, the teaching of evolution and the perceived "liberal" content of social studies and history books.

Unfair Park tried to pin Clayton down on where he stood on the GOP conservative spectrum -- using a form of reportorial shorthand. We asked him how old the Earth is, figuring anything in the 10,000-year range would peg him as a religious conservative.

"I'm not going to cut it half and count the rings," Clayton replied cannily.

OK, slippery answer. (Also wrong, but never mind.) We tried again: Should evolution be taught in science classrooms?

Clayton said evolution is and should remain in science classrooms, but he thinks the alternative theories supported by the religious right -- intelligent design and creationism -- can "find a real nice home" in humanities, philosophy or world history classes.

"It's seems to me you can't be taught the one [evolution] without the other [creationism]," Clayton said. "It's an impossibility to talk about evolution without mentioning creationism."

Right. Of course. You can't have physics without metaphysics. Can't teach marine biology without mentioning mermaids.

And we still can't figure out why anyone in his or her right mind would want to serve on the State Board of Education.

South Dakota preps for Scopes IV?

http://scienceblogs.com/tfk/2010/02/south_dakota_preps_for_scopes.php

Category: Culture Wars Policy and Politics
Posted on: February 26, 2010 6:37 PM, by Josh Rosenau

I've got a column at Science Progress arguing just that (in my internal accounting, McLean was Scopes II, Kitzmiller was Scopes III):

Legislators in South Dakota seem bent on becoming anti-science pioneers. After a century of anti-evolution policies and legislation across the United States, the South Dakota legislature is set to become the only one in the nation to micromanage what teachers should say about global warming.

This attack on global warming was prefigured in the announcement last August by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that it planned to gin up "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century." Senior vice president for the environment William Kovacs exulted: "It would be evolution versus creationism. It would be the science of climate change on trial."

Kovacs later apologized, explaining, "My 'Scopes monkey' analogy was inappropriate," as it undermined his insistence that the Chamber "is not denying or otherwise challenging the science behind global climate change." However embarrassing and erroneous Kovacs' description of the chamber's campaign might have been, they foreshadowed the South Dakota legislature's move toward its own version of a global warming Scopes trial.

Click through and enjoy. I've been looking for an excuse to mock that line from Kovacs for a while now, and this is a pretty good outlet to plant that flag. Global warming denial is the creationism of the 21st century, and it's time scientists and science fans started treating it as such.

And don't forget that Scopes lost.

The Reasons Why Evolution Is Not True

http://thesop.org/story/science/2010/02/28/the-problem-with-evolution-part-two.php

Shakespeare would call the theory of evolution a comedy of errors. A human being with their eyes closed will find it quite difficult to turn a slab of clay into the shape of a basketball, even though they have hands and a mind to make structural judgments. Why then would any grown person believe the planets were put together by lifeless gravity?

Many scientists are like Autistic Savants, who have a great disparity between one form of intelligence and another. Many of them are logically challenged. The scientific theory of evolution is a shot in the dark. People should rely on sound reason, if they have it, when reading these primitive theories. But I believe many people are blinded by the modern accomplishments of science and cannot understand that no one has every kind of intelligence. And scientists surely do not posses every kind of intelligence. There is spiritual intelligence; mathematical intelligence; emotional intelligence and so forth. Scientists have created many useful medicines the last one hundred years, and they certainly could have used a dose of common sense when they formulated their theory of evolution.

Genes and chromosomes are like computer programs. They did not program themselves and likewise computer programs did not illogically program themselves. Their genesis is by someone greater than them. Genes and chromosomes did not decide on their own to go on a wild journey of transforming one species to another. Their abilities were built into them. The writers of evolution are foolish by nature because they have observed nature and have seen a work of art, a rose; a sunset; a peacock but sadly they could not understand that all art has an artist.

GOP challengers join Texas ed board battleground

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5h7s45eNpNvAXTc6tuYJEQgl-PpXgD9E5AMH00

By PAUL J. WEBER (AP) 12 hours ago

SAN ANTONIO Uproar over the evolution curriculum. Divides over religious influences in American history. A board member who called public schools a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion."

Even to some Republican challengers in Tuesday's primary election, Texas' influential State Board of Education has image issues.

"The creationism and evolution issues have overshadowed what the board does," said candidate Thomas Ratliff, a lobbyist. "I don't think everything they do is bad. But they have a real PR problem."

Ratliff is one of several Republicans trying to unseat some of the most prominent Christian conservatives on the board, which adopts Texas school curriculum standards on everything from science to social studies. Twenty-two candidates are vying for eight seats up for election, five of which are held by Republicans.

Social conservatives control the 15-member board, and liberal observers view the primary as an opportunity to purge the board of some of its most far-right members.

Other challengers see a chance to bring an even more conservative bent to the education board.

"I think the election is a right-way, wrong-way referendum on the future of the board," said Brian Russell, 40, an Austin attorney running for an open board seat. "The board has done great work and has been going the right way."

Board members have clout far beyond the Lone Star State. Textbook publishers have few customers bigger than Texas, giving the state significant influence over the content of books marketed across the country.

As culture-war divisions escalate, the board has become a battleground for social conservatives and liberal watchdogs, each accusing the other of imposing ideological agendas into what about 4.8 million K-12 students learn in Texas classrooms.

Scientists and teachers from around the country stormed the Capitol last year when the board reviewed how evolution is taught. In a partial defeat for conservatives, the board ultimately decided that Texas schools would no longer have to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. Teachers would still be encouraged to consider "all sides" of scientific theories.

In March, guidelines for dictating what students learn about history will get a first vote. That is why despite the focus on the Republican gubernatorial primary between Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the races for education board seats are commanding unusual attention.

"We've never seen this many of the religious right faction opposed by challengers," said Dan Quinn, spokesman for the liberal Texas Freedom Network. "It's clear the first step has been taken. There are candidates who have seen enough of the nonsense."

Republican incumbent Don McLeroy defended the board, saying it has achieved balance.

"There is nothing conservative about what we did in English. Nothing conservative about what we did in science," McLeroy said of the board's record. "It just shows how left things get with the uncritical examination of evolution."

McLeroy is a favorite target of board critics. The 63-year-old dentist, who has served on the board for 10 years, is a creationist who believes Earth is only 6,000 years old and that the Christian influences of the founding fathers are important to studying American history.

Ratliff, his opponent, said he concedes that McLeroy never tried foisting his creationism beliefs into textbooks, although the Legislature removed McLeroy as board chairman following the science curriculum fight. McLeroy said opponents use his personal beliefs to paint him as "dumb and stupid" while willfully ignoring the board's successes.

Christian conservatives began building their presence from one seat 15 years ago to seven of the 10 GOP seats now. Among those up for grabs in the primary is that of Cynthia Dunbar, who is not running for re-election after serving a single four-year term. Dunbar drew criticism for her comments that public education is a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion" in her book "One Nation Under God."

She is endorsing Russell, who said other Republican challengers are disguised moderates.

"I'm not trying to out-conservative anyone," said Ratliff, 42, whose race has no Democratic challenger in the Nov. 2 general election. "My race isn't about the best Republican. My race is about the best to help public schools."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Climate change denialists = climate change liars

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/02/climate_change_denialists_clim.php?utm_source=sbhomepage&utm_medium=link&utm_content=channellink

Category: Environment
Posted on: February 27, 2010 6:33 PM, by PZ Myers

The denialists are at it again in the comments, parroting the latest lie.

UEA CRU's Dr Phil Jones agrees there has been no statistically significant global warming since 1995.

Wow. You'd think they'd realize that twisting the words of a scientist around 180 from what they actually said is a very bad strategy it would be like trying to claim that I'd decided evolution was false. This is no exception. Deltoid has a wonderfully clear quote:

This led to a Daily Mail headline reading: "Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995."

Since I've advocated a more explicit use of the word "lie", I'll go ahead and follow my own advice: that Daily Mail headline is a lie. Phil Jones did not say there had been no global warming since 1995; he said the opposite. He said the world had been warming at 0.12C per decade since 1995. However, over that time frame, he could not quite rule out at the traditional 95% confidence level that the warming since 1995 had not been a random fluke.

Anyone who has even a passing high-school familiarity with statistics should understand the difference between these two statements. At a longer time interval, say 30 or 50 or 100 years, Mr Jones could obviously demonstrate that global warming is a statistically significant trend. In the interview he stated that the warming since 1975 is statistically significant. Everyone, even climate-change sceptics, agrees that the earth has experienced a warming trend since the late 19th century. But if you take any short sample out of that trend (say, 1930-45 or 1960-75), you might not be able to guarantee that the particular warming observed in those years was not a statistical fluke. This is a simple truth about statistics: if you measure just ten children, the relationship between age and height might be a fluke. But obviously the fact remains that older children tend to be taller than younger ones, and if you measure 100 of them, you'll find the relationship quite statistically significant indeed.

What's truly infuriating about this episode of journalistic malpractice is that, once again, it illustrates the reasons why the East Anglia scientists adopted an adversarial attitude towards information management with regard to outsiders and the media. They were afraid that any data they allowed to be characterised by non-climate scientists would be vulnerable to propagandistic distortion. And they were right.

Understanding why the Christianity-science divide is important

http://jacksonville.com/news/metro/2010-02-28/story/understanding_why_the_christianity_science_divide_is_important

Is it merely academic, or is the schism a real issue for all of us?

By Jeff Brumley Story updated at 2:22 PM on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010

Rich Overman, president of Creation Education Resources Inc., believes the Earth was created exactly as it says in Genesis.

The 52-year-old firefighter and Church of God member said his faith is unwavering - even if evolution is said to disprove biblical teaching about creation.

"If I'm right, those other guys are going to be in trouble," he said, referring to eternal torment. "If they're right, I'm just going to turn to dust and be fertilizer."

But some Christians are concerned.

Some 300 years since the Enlightenment, when reason rebelled against faith, and almost 100 years since the Scopes trial brought the teaching of evolution to the national consciousness, the tug-of-war continues in the form of evolution-vs.-creationism book wars and lawsuits over the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools.

The ruling body of the Church of England became so worried that Christians may feel compelled to choose sides, and possibly fall from faith, that it passed a motion earlier this month affirming the compatibility of religion and science.

But does that academic disagreement really matter to everyday people?

It should, according to two very different kinds of Christians.

One takes the Bible at face value, believing God created the world in six solar days and rested on the seventh, just as it says in the first chapter of Genesis. Eroding that belief can lead some to lose faith in Scripture and eventually abandon their faith.

"One man I know said he quit going to church after high school because it did not have an answer to evolution," said Richard Overman, president of Creation Education Resources, a Middleburg-based ministry that promotes the literal interpretation of biblical creation.

The other takes a more metaphorical approach to the biblical account, believing instead that God's fingerprints can be found in the theory of evolution.

The faithful "must do away with simple, straightforward formulae and be comfortable with nuance" when considering how evolution and biblical creation overlap, said Charles Foster, British author of "The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin."

'A spiritual battle'

To Overman, Scripture is clear: The Earth was created precisely as described in Genesis, which, he said, makes the planet more than 6,000 years old.

"One day is one day, not eons" as some Christians say, he said.

"If you read the Bible and you take it at face value, you get some very clear meaning from it," Overman said. "So what Satan does is he tries to convince Christians and non-Christians that's it's not true, [and] he does that by trying to use science."

Overman, who leads fossil-hunting trips and lectures church and home school groups about creation science, said he is most often asked to square dinosaurs with his theological views.

That's easy, he said: Dinosaurs existed, were on Noah's ark, and went extinct like any other species within the past six millennia.

The real issue isn't whether T-Rex existed but how it's used to undermine creationism, which in turn could erode belief in other biblical tenets, such as the divinity of Christ or that marriage should be between one man and one woman, Overman said.

"It's a spiritual battle," he said of the debate.

Need to 'embrace nuance'

For Foster, however, faith suffers most in that either-or battle between what he described as "the extreme right wing factions" of the science-versus-faith debate.

"Young Earth" creationists ignore the growing body of evidence supporting some elements of natural selection while hard-core atheists are "misrepresenting the scientific record [because] they can't cope with nuance," Foster said.

The nuance they overlook includes altruistic behaviors in various species that point to a loving intelligence behind creation that contradicts the narrow and cruel "survival of the fittest" view of evolution, Foster said.

Seeing evidence of altruism helps a person to "continue to believe that God is good" while embracing scientific discoveries.

If Christians believe their God is one of truth, they should "have a passionate interest in science and the Bible."

'God is bigger than all of this'

The Rev. James A. Hull, senior pastor at North Jacksonville Church of God, doesn't go "berserko-crazy" over the issue because science will eventually prove biblical teachings to be true. He cited a verse in the Hebrew scriptures referring to "the circle of the Earth" - more than a thousand years before scientists concluded that the Earth is round.

"Given enough time ... you'll find that science and the Bible really do jibe together," Hull said.

The Rev. Ted Pisarchuk, rector of St. Justin Martyr Orthodox Church in Jacksonville, was even less concerned when asked about the Church of England resolution and the evolution-creationism debate.

Christians shouldn't be concerned when science contradicts faith - or seems to do so, he said. Nor should they get overly excited when a scientific finding seems to bolster something in the Bible.

"We can get really silly with all of this - whether there was a flood or not, it doesn't matter," he said. "I believe there was ... but God is bigger than all of this."

jeff.brumley@jacksonville.com (904) 359-4310


Friday, February 26, 2010

Evolution education update: February 26, 2010

NCSE honors three Friends of Darwin. Two members of NCSE's staff surface in the blogosphere. And a controversy in Israel erupts over the ministry of education's chief scientist's denial of evolution.

FRIENDS OF DARWIN AWARDS FOR THREE TEXANS

NCSE is pleased to announce the winners of the Friends of Darwin award for 2010: David Hillis, Gerald Skoog, and Ronald Wetherington, all scientists in Texas who have fought for the integrity of science education in the Lone Star State. Hillis, Skoog, and Wetherington received their awards in San Diego, on February 12, 2010, during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Scientific American's Steve Mirsky emceed the ceremony.

Hillis is Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professor in Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. "When we anticipated problems with the Texas board of education's adoption of high school biology textbooks in the early 2000s, we turned to David," commented NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott in a February 24, 2010, press release from NCSE about the awards. "He was brilliant in his response then, and in the most recent battles in Texas in the rewriting of the science education standards."

Gerald Skoog is Director of the Center for Integration of Science Education & Research at, and Dean Emeritus of, the College of Education at Texas Tech University. "Skoog's lifelong scholarship in evolution education has had a huge impact for forty years," Scott explained. "He literally wrote the book on the coverage of evolution in textbooks. We all depend on Jerry for his scholarship. And he has served NCSE in very important ways -- when we've needed help, especially in Texas, he's always been there for us."

And Ronald Wetherington is Professor of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University, where he also is Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. Scott remarked, "Ron is second to none when it comes to the time, energy, skill, and enthusiasm he's brought to the battle over Texas science standards. His honesty and his ability to earn the trust of school board members has paid huge dividends in the struggle for good science education standards in Texas." He was also named a "Grasshoots Hero" in 2009 by the Texas Freedom Network.

The three Texans join Carl Zimmer, Steven Schafersman, Lawrence Krauss, Kenneth R. Miller, John F. Haught, Philip Kitcher, Victor H. Hutchison, Philip Appleman, Fred Edwords, Barbara Forrest, and the eleven plaintiffs of Kitzmiller v. Dover, to name a few, as NCSE's Friends of Darwin. The Friend of Darwin award is presented annually to a select few whose efforts to support NCSE and advance its goal of defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools have been truly outstanding.

For the press release, visit:
http://ncse.com/evolution/darwin-stands-tall-texas

For NCSE's coverage of events in Texas, visit:
http://ncse.com/news/texas

NCSE'S MEAD AND SCOTT IN THE BLOGOSPHERE

Two members of NCSE's staff, education project director Louise S. Mead and executive director Eugenie C. Scott, recently surfaced in the blogosphere -- Mead with a guest post on the blog of the National Association of Biology Teachers, and Scott in a question-and-answer session on the La Ciencia y sus Demonios (Science and its Demons) blog.

In her post (February 18, 2010), Mead gently chided the recent Becoming Human series for its implicit comparison of modern chimpanzees and humans, which "fuels the misconception that humans evolved from 'monkeys'." "Don't get me wrong," Mead explained, "I love NOVA." But "numerous times statements like '[m]illions of years ago, we were apes, living ape lives in Africa' are paired with video segments of modern day chimpanzees and gorillas, which unfortunately promotes the misconception that we evolved from modern day chimpanzees, or even monkeys, since I'm guessing many people do not readily distinguish between chimps and monkeys." Mead acknowledged, "By the end of the three part program, however, I was less stressed over the perpetuation of the chimp to human comparison, and more excited by some of the newer findings presented in the series," and she recommended the resources for teachers provided at NOVA's evolution website.

In her interview (February 18, 2010), Scott discussed a wide variety of topics on evolution, creationism, and science education. Among the highlights was her answer to a question about the best way to counter creationism. "In the long run," she answered, "the best way to combat creationism or any other erroneous scientific idea is to have better trained teachers who understand science and who understand why evolution is critically important to biology, geology, and astronomy. In the US, we need to do a better job of recruiting the smartest and most enthusiastic students to go into education as a career, which will require making the education field more attractive, both in pay as well as in working conditions. Once good students are recruited, we need to do a better job of preparing them for the classroom. This will involve improving their understanding of science as a way of knowing (philosophy of science) and also their understanding of basic science and mathematics."

For Mead's post, visit:
http://www.nabt.org/blog/2010/02/18/digging-up-our-family-tree/

For NOVA's evolution resources, visit:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/beta/evolution/

For the interview with Scott, visit:
http://cnho.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/

CONTROVERSY OVER EVOLUTION IN ISRAEL

The chief scientist in Israel's ministry of education, Gavriel Avital, "sparked a furor" by questioning the reliability of evolution and global warming, leading to calls for his dismissal, according to Haaretz (February 21, 2010). "If textbooks state explicitly that human beings' origins are to be found with monkeys, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions. There are many people who don't believe the evolutionary account is correct," he was quoted as saying. "There are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else. Part of my responsibility, in light of my position with the Education Ministry, is to examine textbooks and curricula."

Hava Yablonka of Tel Aviv University told Haaretz that Avital's statements were tantamount "to saying that space should be given in textbooks to the view that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. It's astonishing that the chief scientist of a government ministry can say such bizarre things." Similarly, Lia Ettinger, a biologist at the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv, called for Avital's resignation, commenting, "It's clear that given the nature of science, there is never complete consensus, and that disputes bring us closer to the truth. But this has nothing to do with the things Avital said. If these are his positions, he cannot promote the kind of education necessary for the environment and sustainable ecology."

A subsequent article in Haaretz (February 22, 2010) quoted Yehoshua Kolodny, a professor emeritus at Hebrew University who recently won the Israel Prize -- the country's highest civilian honor -- for his contributions to the earth sciences, as saying, "Denying evolution is like denying science itself." Kolodny added, "When a top scientist ignores these things, it's a cultural calamity ... There are no disagreements among scientists regarding evolution. Catholics and Protestants long ago ended their war against evolution, and Avital is for all intents and purposes joining the radical fringe of evangelicals in the United States." Jonathan Erez, a professor at Hebrew University's Earth Sciences Institute, told Haaretz, "it is clear that Avital is not fit for the job."

In a February 23, 2010, editorial, Haaretz called on the minister of education, Gideon Sa'ar, to sack Avital, describing him as "an obscurantist Orthodox zealot who casts doubt on the validity of scientific research and rejects both evolution and global warming" and commenting, "His proposals that curricula undergo religious censorship to cast doubt on evolution are reminiscent of the notorious 'monkey trial' that saw a teacher in Tennessee put on trial in the 1920s for teaching evolution." The editorial concluded, "Sa'ar should immediately get rid of Avital, whose appointment has made a mockery of the minister's lofty promises, and replace him with a true scientist."

Avital's academic background is in aerodynamic engineering -- when appointed as chief scientist in December 2009, he was the head of aeromechanics at Elbit Systems and a lecturer in aerodynamics at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology -- and his appointment was controversial since, as Haaretz (December 1, 2009) reported, it was "apparently the first time the ministry's chief scientist has not come from one of the universities' education schools." A former chief scientist at the ministry told the newspaper, "A chief scientist do[e]s not have to know everything about education, but he should at least have extensive knowledge of the field. This is one of the most important posts in the ministry."

Unfortunately, Avital's views on evolution may be shared by a sizable segment of the Israeli public. A 2006 survey of public opinion in Israel by the Samuel Neaman Institute found that "a minority of only 28% accepts the scientific theory of the evolution [sic], while the majority (59%) believes that man was created by god," while according to the 2000 International Social Survey Programme, a total of 54% of Israeli respondents described "Human beings developed from earlier species of animals" as definitely or probably true, placing Israel ahead of the United States (46%, in last place) for its public acceptance of evolution, but behind twenty-three of the twenty-seven countries included in the report.

For the Haaretz stories about the furor, visit:
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1151223.html
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1151403.html

For Haaretz's editorial, visit:
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1151714.html

For the story about Avital's appointment, visit:
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=1131922

For the cited polls, visit:
http://www.neaman.org.il/neaman/publications/publication_item.asp?fid=757&parent_fid=488&iid=3428
http://www.gesis.org/en/services/data/survey-data/issp/modules-study-overview/environment/2000/

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://ncse.com -- 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 x310
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncse.com
http://ncse.com

Subscribe to NCSE's free weekly e-newsletter:
http://groups.google.com/group/ncse-news

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http://www.facebook.com/evolution.ncse
http://www.youtube.com/NatCen4ScienceEd
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NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today!
http://ncse.com/membership


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Green Light for Institute on Creation in Texas

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/19/education/19texas.html

By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
Published: December 19, 2007

HOUSTON A Texas higher education panel has recommended allowing a Bible-based group called the Institute for Creation Research to offer online master's degrees in science education.

The action comes weeks after the Texas Education Agency's director of science, Christine Castillo Comer, lost her job after superiors accused her of displaying bias against creationism and failing to be "neutral" over the teaching of evolution.

The state's commissioner of higher education, Raymund A. Paredes, said late Monday that he was aware of the institute's opposition to evolution but was withholding judgment until the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board meets Jan. 24 to rule on the recommendation, made last Friday, by the board's certification advisory council.

Henry Morris III, the chief executive of the Institute for Creation Research, said Tuesday that the proposed curriculum, taught in California, used faculty and textbooks "from all the top schools" along with, he said, the "value added" of challenges to standard teachings of evolution.

"Where the difference is, we provide both sides of the story," Mr. Morris said. On its Web site, the institute declares, "All things in the universe were created and made by God in the six literal days of the creation week" and says it "equips believers with evidences of the Bible's accuracy and authority through scientific research, educational programs, and media presentations, all conducted within a thoroughly biblical framework."

It also says "the harmful consequences of evolutionary thinking on families and society (abortion, promiscuity, drug abuse, homosexuality and many others) are evident all around us."

Asked how the institute could educate students to teach science, Dr. Paredes, who holds a doctorate in American civilization from the University of Texas and served 10 years as vice chancellor for academic development at the University of California, said, "I don't know. I'm not a scientist."

He said he had no ready explanation for the panel's recommendation. "I asked about the decision," Dr. Paredes said Monday in a phone interview from Austin. "I got a three-inch-thick folder an hour ago. We're going to give it a full review." But, he said, "If it's approved, we'll make sure it's of high quality."

Approval would allow the institute, which moved to Dallas this year from near San Diego, to offer the online graduate program almost immediately while seeking accreditation from national academic authorities like the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges within two years.

In California, the only other state where Mr. Morris said the institute was offering degrees, it won recognition from the state superintendent of public instruction in 1981 but was denied license renewal in 1988. The institute sued and in 1992 won a $225,000 settlement that allowed it to continue offering degrees; it now operates under the California Department of Consumer Affairs. Dr. Morris said his program was accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which is not recognized by Texas.

Last month, in a sign that Texas was being drawn deeper into creationism controversy, Ms. Comer, 57, was put under pressure to resign as science director after forwarding an e-mail message about a talk by a creationism critic, Barbara Forrest, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana State University.

Lizzette Reynolds, a deputy commissioner who called for Ms. Comer's dismissal, later told The Austin American-Statesman she was surprised she resigned. Ms. Reynolds did not respond to a message left at her office.

The Texas Education commissioner, Robert Scott, told The Dallas Morning News that Ms. Comer was not forced out over the message, adding, "You can be in favor of science without bashing people's faith." He did not return phone calls to his office.

Ms. Comer said the commissioner should show her where she was bashing anyone's faith. "He just doesn't get it," she said.

Do Toxins Cause Autism?

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/25/opinion/25kristof.html?th&emc=th

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: February 24, 2010

Autism was first identified in 1943 in an obscure medical journal. Since then it has become a frighteningly common affliction, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting recently that autism disorders now affect almost 1 percent of children.

Over recent decades, other development disorders also appear to have proliferated, along with certain cancers in children and adults. Why? No one knows for certain. And despite their financial and human cost, they presumably won't be discussed much at Thursday's White House summit on health care.

Yet they constitute a huge national health burden, and suspicions are growing that one culprit may be chemicals in the environment. An article in a forthcoming issue of a peer-reviewed medical journal, Current Opinion in Pediatrics, just posted online, makes this explicit.

The article cites "historically important, proof-of-concept studies that specifically link autism to environmental exposures experienced prenatally." It adds that the "likelihood is high" that many chemicals "have potential to cause injury to the developing brain and to produce neurodevelopmental disorders."

The author is not a granola-munching crank but Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and chairman of the school's department of preventive medicine. While his article is full of cautionary language, Dr. Landrigan told me that he is increasingly confident that autism and other ailments are, in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed.

"The crux of this is brain development," he said. "If babies are exposed in the womb or shortly after birth to chemicals that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime."

Concern about toxins in the environment used to be a fringe view. But alarm has moved into the medical mainstream. Toxicologists, endocrinologists and oncologists seem to be the most concerned.

One uncertainty is to what extent the reported increases in autism simply reflect a more common diagnosis of what might previously have been called mental retardation. There are genetic components to autism (identical twins are more likely to share autism than fraternal twins), but genetics explains only about one-quarter of autism cases.

Suspicions of toxins arise partly because studies have found that disproportionate shares of children develop autism after they are exposed in the womb to medications such as thalidomide (a sedative), misoprostol (ulcer medicine) and valproic acid (anticonvulsant). Of children born to women who took valproic acid early in pregnancy, 11 percent were autistic. In each case, fetuses seem most vulnerable to these drugs in the first trimester of pregnancy, sometimes just a few weeks after conception.

So as we try to improve our health care, it's also prudent to curb the risks from the chemicals that envelop us. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey is drafting much-needed legislation that would strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act. It is moving ahead despite his own recent cancer diagnosis, and it can be considered as an element of health reform. Senator Lautenberg says that under existing law, of 80,000 chemicals registered in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has required safety testing of only 200. "Our children have become test subjects," he noted.

One peer-reviewed study published this year in Environmental Health Perspectives gave a hint of the risks. Researchers measured the levels of suspect chemicals called phthalates in the urine of pregnant women. Among women with higher levels of certain phthalates (those commonly found in fragrances, shampoos, cosmetics and nail polishes), their children years later were more likely to display disruptive behavior.

Frankly, these are difficult issues for journalists to write about. Evidence is technical, fragmentary and conflicting, and there's a danger of sensationalizing risks. Publicity about fears that vaccinations cause autism a theory that has now been discredited perhaps had the catastrophic consequence of lowering vaccination rates in America.

On the other hand, in the case of great health dangers of modern times mercury, lead, tobacco, asbestos journalists were too slow to blow the whistle. In public health, we in the press have more often been lap dogs than watchdogs.

At a time when many Americans still use plastic containers to microwave food, in ways that make toxicologists blanch, we need accelerated research, regulation and consumer protection.

"There are diseases that are increasing in the population that we have no known cause for," said Alan M. Goldberg, a professor of toxicology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. "Breast cancer, prostate cancer, autism are three examples. The potential is for these diseases to be on the rise because of chemicals in the environment."

The precautionary principle suggests that we should be wary of personal products like fragrances unless they are marked phthalate-free. And it makes sense particularly for children and pregnant women to avoid most plastics marked at the bottom as 3, 6 and 7 because they are the ones associated with potentially harmful toxins.

I invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

NCSE's Mead and Scott in the blogosphere

http://ncse.com/news/2010/02/ncses-mead-scott-blogosphere-005337

February 24th, 2010

Two members of NCSE's staff, education project director Louise S. Mead and executive director Eugenie C. Scott, recently surfaced in the blogosphere Mead with a guest post on the blog of the National Association of Biology Teachers, and Scott in a question-and-answer session on the La Ciencia y sus Demonios (Science and its Demons) blog.

In her post (February 18, 2010), Mead gently chided the recent Becoming Human series for its implicit comparison of modern chimpanzees and humans, which "fuels the misconception that humans evolved from 'monkeys'." "Don't get me wrong," Mead explained, "I love NOVA." But "numerous times statements like '[m]illions of years ago, we were apes, living ape lives in Africa' are paired with video segments of modern day chimpanzees and gorillas, which unfortunately promotes the misconception that we evolved from modern day chimpanzees, or even monkeys, since I'm guessing many people do not readily distinguish between chimps and monkeys." Mead acknowledged, "By the end of the three part program, however, I was less stressed over the perpetuation of the chimp to human comparison, and more excited by some of the newer findings presented in the series," and she recommended the resources for teachers provided at NOVA's evolution website.

In her interview (February 18, 2010), Scott discussed a wide variety of topics on evolution, creationism, and science education. Among the highlights was her answer to a question about the best way to counter creationism. "In the long run," she answered, "the best way to combat creationism or any other erroneous scientific idea is to have better trained teachers who understand science and who understand why evolution is critically important to biology, geology, and astronomy. In the US, we need to do a better job of recruiting the smartest and most enthusiastic students to go into education as a career, which will require making the education field more attractive, both in pay as well as in working conditions. Once good students are recruited, we need to do a better job of preparing them for the classroom. This will involve improving their understanding of science as a way of knowing (philosophy of science) and also their understanding of basic science and mathematics."

Darwin vs. creationism

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3853857,00.html

Avraham Frank slams top education official for challenging theory of evolution

Avraham Frank Published: 02.25.10, 00:37 / Israel Opinion

In 1925, teacher John Scopes was put on trial in Tennessee for teaching the theory of evolution in his classroom. At the time, Darwin's theory violated a law that was only annulled in 1967.

Recently, we were informed that the chief scientist at the Education Ministry, Dr. Gabi Avital a religious man who is an aeronautical and space engineering expert presented a position that rejects the broad agreement on the role of humans in global warming. On the same occasion, he presented the need to teach different views on the creation of life at schools in addition to Darwin's evolution theory for example, creationism.

Creationism, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the term, is an approach that accepts the Biblical description of the world's creation in the Book of Genesis as a realistic explanation for the creation of the universe, earth, life, and man.

So what is the problem here? In the post-modern era, where the notion of truth is so battered and where every opinion can be accepted and is of equal value to any other opinion, why shouldn't we present blunt questions in the face of solid scientific conventions? This is also where my attitude to the chief scientist stems from: The confusion he creates.

Scientific uncertainty

Our students (and not only they) are living in a confusing era in various aspects: Morals, behavior, academics, and personal issues. The boundaries between real and virtual are being blurred. The distinction between good and bad and between what is permitted and what is forbidden is becoming more complicated. The tension between psychological childhood and technical-technological adolescence is growing. Question marks about school grow too.

And now, this is complemented by scientific uncertainty.

If the Education Ministry's chief scientist takes the liberty to say things that completely contradict the textbooks, what would prevent students from declaring to their teachers: This is wrong! You don't know anything! After all, the chief scientist said so!

And how would the teachers respond? The students are indeed right: This is what the chief scientist told us. Should we, the teachers, openly challenge his position? Tomorrow we'll be called to order if we do it. And here we have more confusion.

We can only hope that the Education Ministry will issue another official statement that will back the teachers and the curriculum (Darwin and the theory of evolution do not need any backing they are doing very well as it is) and tell the chief scientist to focus on his duties or go home. Alternately, the Ministry should add the first two chapters in the Book of Genesis to the life sciences curriculum.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fodor on Darwinism: "One sees, even without God, how this Darwinian story could turn out to be radically wrong."

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/02/fodor_on_darwinism_one_sees_ev.html

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini aren't making many friends among evolutionists with their new book What Darwin Got Wrong. Salon magazine published an interview with Fodor today in which he has some interesting things to say about the attacks he's received online, about whether he is providing aid and succor to the ID community, and what he thinks is wrong with modern evolutionary theory.

As you explain in the book, one of the problems with Darwinism is that Darwin is inventing explanations for something that happened long ago, over a long period of time. Isn't that similar to creationism?

Creationism isn't the only doctrine that's heavily into post-hoc explanation. Darwinism is too. If a creature develops the capacity to spin a web, you could tell a story of why spinning a web was good in the context of evolution. That is why you should be as suspicious of Darwinism as of creationism. They have spurious consequence in common. And that should be enough to make you worry about either account.

Read the full interview at Salon.com.

Posted by Robert Crowther on February 23, 2010 8:21 AM | Permalink

"What Darwin Got Wrong": Taking down the father of evolution

http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2010/02/22/what_darwin_got_wrong_jerry_fodor/

Editor: Laura Miller
Updated: Today Topic: Evolution
Monday, Feb 22, 2010 21:01 EST

A new book dares to attack the theory of natural selection by using -- surprise! -- science

By Thomas Rogers

At this point, the idea of somebody publishing an attack on Charles Darwin isn't exactly surprising. The 19th-century naturalist, and the man behind the theory of evolution, has never been a particularly popular figure among conservative Christians, and, these days, the anti-Darwin movement is a cottage industry. In the last year, which marked the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and 150 years since the publication of "The Origin of the Species," the man was even subjected to the peculiar indignity of an assault by former "Growing Pains" star Kirk Cameron.

But unlike most of these attacks, "What Darwin Got Wrong," a new book by Jerry Fodor, a professor of philosophy and cognitive sciences at Rutgers University, and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Arizona, comes not from the religious right, but from two atheist academics with -- surprise -- a nuanced argument about the shortcomings of Darwin's theories. Their book details (in very technical language) how recent discoveries in genetics have thrown into question many of our perceived truths about natural selection, and why these have the potential to undermine much of what we know about evolution and biology.

Salon spoke to Fodor over the phone from his home, about the problems with Darwin's ideas, bloggers' "obscene" comments on his work, and why Darwinism might be as unreliable as creationism.

In 2007, you wrote an article attacking Darwinism in the London Review of Books, and experienced a lot of backlash from both inside and outside of the scientific community. Why do you think people get so worked up about Darwinism?

It's a theory that's played all sort of roles in the foundations of biology. There's a lot of people who think wrongly that if you didn't have Darwinism the whole foundations of modern biology would collapse. I doubt that's true. I'm sure it's not. But if you tell people, "There's this fundamental theoretical commitment you've made and there's holes in it," they'll want very much to defend that theory.

Most of the backlash to the book so far has been on blogs, which have been pretty obscene and debased. What's upsetting is that they tell you that they think you're an idiot, but they don't tell you why -- people who aren't part of the field or who may not, in many cases, know much about Darwin. I'm not sure that all people who have been blogging about it are very sophisticated. It's frustrating because you don't know who you're talking to.

At some point you just have to stop worrying about the reaction and worry if the argument is any good. I don't take the arguments that say, "This that can't be true because of what I learned in Biology 101" very seriously.

What is your beef with natural selection?

The main thing Darwin had in mind with natural selection was to come up with a theory that answers the question, "Why are certain traits there?" Why do people have hair on their heads? Why do both eyes have the same color? Why does dark hair go with dark eyes? You can make up a story that explains why it was good to have those properties in the original environment of selection. Do we have any reason to think that story is true? No.

According to Darwin, traits of creatures are selected for their contribution to fitness [likelihood to survive]. But how do you distinguish a trait that is selected for from one that comes along with it? There are a lot of interesting structures in creatures that have nothing to do with fitness.

Some variants in selection are clearly environmental. If you can't store water you'll do worse in a dry environment than if you can. But suppose that having a high ability to carry a lot of water is correlated for genetic reasons with skin color. How do you decide which trait is selected for by environmental factors and which one is just attached to it? There isn't anything in the Darwinist picture that allows you to answer that question.

So we have no way of knowing whether a trait serves an evolutionary purpose?

Some traits are presumably selected for by the environment, and some of them are not. If somebody says Trait A affects fitness and Trait B does not, but Trait B comes with Trait A so you've got both traits in the organism, it's very natural for somebody in the Darwinian tradition to think that Trait B has been selected for by the environment. But the answer is, it's not there for anything.

Look, everybody has toenails, so you might ask yourself, why is it such a good thing we have toenails? It may be a case that in the environment there was some factor that favored toenails but there also may not.

As you explain in the book, it turns out many genes are far more tied together -- and gene expression is much more complicated -- than many people originally thought.

What the genetics has come to show is that traits are not independent, but complexly interconnected, and a lot of the effect that the environment has on an organism's evolution depends on what organism it is.

There's a famous fox-into-dog experiment, in which many generations of foxes were selected for being domestically trainable. As you would expect, when you select for domesticability, you get animals that behave less and less like their feral counterparts -- but you also get curly ears and kinked tails and changes in their reproductive system. Nobody had that in mind, but the structure of the organism groups all of these traits together. Why do these animals have kinky tails? They just happen to be structural correlates. Now the question is, how much of the evolutionary variance is determined by factors of the environment and how much is controlled by the organization of the organism, and the answer is nobody knows.

Most children learn about natural selection by learning the example of the giraffe's long neck, which supposedly evolved because it allowed animals to graze higher branches. Does this mean that we're giving schoolchildren the wrong information?

The inference runs that there's this creature that has a long neck, so this creature was selected for having a long neck. That inference is clearly invalid. A creature that has a long neck may have that neck because a different trait was selected, and the long neck came along with it.

And in a sense, there are no such things as traits. The environment selects creatures. Animals can have long necks and toenails, but if you try to break such creatures apart into traits and you say, OK, "What selected this trait?" and, "What selected that trait?" you've made a mistake right from the beginning. The disintegration of the organism into traits is itself a spurious undertaking. Biologists have said for a long time that organisms aren't like Swiss apples, you can't tap them on a table and have them fall apart into distinct wedges. Selection is operating on whole organisms.

There's been increasing evidence in recent years that homosexuality has a genetic cause, which doesn't exactly mesh with natural selection, given that gay people aren't likely to have lots of children. Does your theory help explain the gay gene?

It's not obvious what, when the environment was selecting for fecundity, would have selected for people who are gay. You could have gotten them innately as a result of something that has nothing to do with sexual performance.

Do you think people are defending Darwinism because they think any attack on Darwinism gives power to creationists, and they don't want creationists to get the upper hand?

I think there's the sense that if you think that there's something wrong with the theory you're giving aid and comfort to intelligent design people. And people do feel very strongly about whether you want to do that.

When you do science, you try to find the truth. The problem with creationism, even if you're not a hardcore atheist, as I am, is that anything is compatible with creationism. If God created the world, he could have created it any way he liked. So creationists, when faced with evidence of evolution, are happy to say that that's the way God created the world. If it turns out that there is no process of evolution, they'd say OK, that's fine too. Whatever turns out to be the case it's compatible with God having created the world, so you can't argue with their position or you throw your shoulders out.

As you explain in the book, one of the problems with Darwinism is that Darwin is inventing explanations for something that happened long ago, over a long period of time. Isn't that similar to creationism?

Creationism isn't the only doctrine that's heavily into post-hoc explanation. Darwinism is too. If a creature develops the capacity to spin a web, you could tell a story of why spinning a web was good in the context of evolution. That is why you should be as suspicious of Darwinism as of creationism. They have spurious consequence in common. And that should be enough to make you worry about either account.

If you're right, what do you think your argument means for the study of evolution?

If this is true, then we need to rethink the implications of Darwinism. Maybe the right question to ask is not what environmental variables are doing selection, but what kinds of complexes are they selecting on. One sees, even without God, how this Darwinian story could turn out to be radically wrong. You could see a massive failure of the evolutionary project, because wrong assumptions were made.

University of Texas at Austin a Partner in Evolution Study Funded for $25 Million by National Science Foundation

http://www.utexas.edu/news/2010/02/23/partner_in_evolution/

February 23, 2010

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AUSTIN, Texas The University of Texas at Austin is part of a $25 million, multi-university center established by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will study evolution in action in natural and virtual settings.

The center, titled "BEACON: Study of Evolution in Action," is one of five highly coveted Science and Technology Centers recently established by the NSF. It is a joint effort by Michigan State University, The University of Texas at Austin, the University of Washington, the University of Idaho and North Carolina A&T State University.

BEACON is short for the "Bio/computational Evolution in Action CONsortium."

In contrast to evolutionary studies focusing on fossil records or comparing DNA among species to discover common ancestry, BEACON scientists will focus on evolution as an ongoing process.

They will use organisms in laboratories and at field sites, and use "digital organisms" undergoing real evolution on computers.

"The goal of the project is to transfer knowledge about biological mechanisms to engineering and computer science," said Risto Miikkkulainen, professor in the Department of Computer Science. "On the other hand, we will use digital evolution to gain insight into biological phenomena that would be difficult or impossible to study in the laboratory."

BEACON will be a resource for academia and industry, performing basic research while helping create new technologies to solve scientific problems, ranging from the development of safer, more efficient cars to systems that detect computer intrusions.

In addition, the goal of the center is to educate a generation of multidisciplinary scientists and improve public understanding of evolution at all levels.

The University of Texas at Austin BEACON team includes Miikkulainen (Department of Computer Science), David Hillis, Lauren Ancel Meyers and Claus Wilke (Section of Integrative Biology) and Andrew Ellington (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry).

The approximately $2.5 million of initial BEACON funding for The University of Texas at Austin will be used to support interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research projects, graduate training, undergraduate research through the Freshman Research Initiative, and outreach to high schools and the public through the Texas Memorial Museum.

For more details, visit the center's Web site at http://beacon.msu.edu.

For more information, contact: Risto Miikkulainen, Department of Computer Science, 512-471-9571.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Did Texans walk with dinosaurs?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2010/feb/19/religion-evolution

The latest survey of creationist attitudes in Texas shows them strangely fossilised

No matter how often they come up, the figures for creationism in the USA still boggle the mind. The latest poll noticed by the National Centre for Science Education, shows that among registered voters in Texas, 51% disagree that humans have evolved from earlier species of animal. Among Republicans, the figure rises to 60%. Low hanging fruit indeed.

The nearest comparable poll is a Gallup one, from 2008. This shows actually higher rates of creationism in the USA as a whole than in Texas, where the religious right is particularly powerful. But it is possible that the prominence of a "Don't know" question in the Texas poll explains the discrepancy. I suspect myself that all these questions ought also to have a "Don't care" axis and this suspicion is only confirmed by close study of the Gallup poll.

Two things jump out from that. The first is that creationists are less of a political force than their opponents. This at least was true in 2007, when Gallup asked whether a political candidate would attract more or less votes if they announced that they did not believe in evolution. The differences here between registered voters and all adults were trivial. I both case, more than half didn't care; at least it would make no difference to their voting intentions (and in a follow-up question, 70% thought a candidate's views on evolution quite irrelevant). But among those who did care, creationists were outnumbered two to one by evolutionists: 15% of the voters would be more likely to vote for a candidate who espoused creationism, and 29% less likely.

So there is reason in these figures for both sides to feel part of a beleaguered minority. Although it is crazy and humiliating to be part of a nation where a third of your fellow citizens believe that the Flintstones is a historical novel, it must be just as frustrating for the believers to know that their opinions are on a national scale political death. That at least was true before the rise of Sarah Palin. We may hope or pray to taste that it remains true.

The second point is just as unexpected. The Gallup questions on this topic go back nearly thirty years, to 1982. In that period there has been a marked, if not steep decline in American religiosity and a sharp growth in the unchurched and unbelievers, even though atheism remains the self-description of a tiny minority.

So if creationism is primarily a function of religious belief rather than a more general ignorance of science, and a fondness for entertaining stories over boring fact, we would expect it to have declined over these years. But in fact, the number of Americans believing that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so" was 44% in 1982 and in 2008 it was still 44%. In the intervening years, it had never been higher than 47% (in 1999) or lower than 43% (in 2007).

So what's going on? You might argue that this shows conservative, creationist religion holding up while liberal, scientifically literate "mainstream" Christianity declines. Again, that is the demographic story. But it's not what the Gallup graph shows. The numbers believing in theistic evolution ("Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process") have hardly declined at all since 1982, from 38% to 36%.

The only remarkable growth has been in the believers in atheistic evolution who think that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had not part in the process". Their numbers have increased from 9% in 2000 (and 1982) for 14% in 2008.

Almost all this growth has come at the expense of the don't knows.

So what I think these figures show, taken all together, is that creationism is not a function of religious belief in particular, because it's not tracking the changes that we know have happened in American religious allegiance over the last 30 years. It wouldn't exist without the Bible, of course, but what keeps it going as a mass sentiment is much more likely to be some mixture of innumeracy, indifference to science and incredulity about deep time.

Anti-creationism, however, is becoming a symbol of rejection of Christianity. The figures for atheistic evolution track pretty well the growth of religious "Nones"; these in turn are very much higher than the number of avowed atheists or agnostics, which remain tiny, below 1% each in 2008.

Texas voters to referee school 'culture war'

http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/state/84867127.html

By Gary Scharrer - Express-News AUSTIN Texas voters are about to get a say over how to teach evolution in public schools or what historical figures to put into new textbooks.

Call it a proxy vote. By choosing representatives on the State Board of Education this year beginning with the March 2 primary they will shape the debate over public education for the next four years.

The 15-member board has been narrowly divided. Seven so-called "social conservatives" routinely vote as a bloc when it comes to questioning evolution, adding snippets of history to textbooks or deleting them and emphasizing a "back to basics" reading curriculum.

With one more reliable ally, the social conservatives would gain control of the board, which develops curriculum standards and chooses textbooks for the state's 4.7 million public school children and oversees the $22 billion Permanent School Fund.

But they also could lose up to three seats, depending on how challengers fare against Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, and Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, and the outcome of jousting for the open seat of retiring Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richardson, whose district stretches from Austin to the Houston suburbs.

The sprawling SBOE districts are twice as big as congressional or state senate districts. Candidates generally can't raise lots of money to lift name ID or amplify their message. So endorsements matter, as do the testimonials of their supporters and the objections of their critics.

Plenty of liberal and conservative groups are encouraging supporters to get active in the key SBOE races.

"The elections this year could mark a watershed moment for public education in Texas. We might finally get a board that really respects and listens to classroom teachers and scholars instead of treating them as some sort of enemy," said Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal leaning group that monitors the board.

A New York Times Magazine cover story last week chronicled the state board's fight over curriculum standards. Critics of the social conservatives said it was an example of the nationwide embarrassment they have brought to Texas, but the article is a good reason to keep them on the board, said Jonathan Saenz, legislative director for the Texas Free Market Foundation, which advocates for limited government and Judeo-Christian beliefs.

"I don't think anyone in Texas should take their cues for how they should vote on the State Board of Education based on what the New York Times says," he said. "If you like science classes to have room for discussion and questions, then you vote for people who have helped make that happen."

The social conservatives will get a board majority if they keep their current seats and former Ector County school board president Randy Rives defeats GOP incumbent Bob Craig of Lubbock, who often breaks with the social conservatives to support teachers and educators. Rives touts the Bible course offered as an elective in Ector schools while he served on the school board.

The sometimes contentious SBOE debates over science and history curriculum standards have increased public attention on the issues, "and you will see more of an informed voter regardless of political party or who leans which way," Saenz predicted.

Key race in Central Texas

In San Antonio, Mercer wants a second term on the board to help keep the back-to-basics focus.

"That's been our battle cry," he said. "The education lobby opposes those things."

While he does not reject the "social conservative" label, Mercer prefers to describe himself as "conservative to the second power fiscally and socially conservative."

Tim Tuggey also calls himself a conservative and emphasizes frugal management. He does not directly criticize the social conservatives.

"My campaign is not designed to attack a bloc because I feel that sometimes we are arguing over the family heirlooms and the house is burning down," Tuggey, an attorney and lobbyist, said.

The board's action last year to abruptly fire its manager of the $22 billion Permanent School Fund, which provides free textbooks to students and helps school districts earn lower bond ratings, irritated Tuggey, who has 25 years of experience advising law clients over billions of dollars worth of investments.

"I am extremely upset with what I view as a breach of fiduciary duty," he said. "And I personally have overseen billions of dollars as chairman of the board of VIA Metropolitan transit (San Antonio's public transit agency) all without a glitch."

Mercer's District 5 seat includes northern Bexar County, southern Travis County and 11 central Texas counties.

Mercer promotes himself as the true conservative and criticizes Tuggey for giving $41,000 to 22 Democrats in recent years.

Tuggey says the contributions were the result of his clients' wishes and that he has given about $120,000 to Republicans and GOP causes. He has represented the Bexar GOP for years without pay.

The Mercer-Tuggey winner will face the Democratic nominee in the November general election. Four Democrats are running in what generally is considered a GOP-friendly district.

'We've been winning'

There is no Democrat running for McLeroy's District 9 seat, which covers College Station and goes north to the Oklahoma border 28 counties and part of Collin County. McLeroy, of Bryan, is a dentist.

What some see as a "cultural war," McLeroy views as a focus on the basics, including a strong grammar section in reading, informing students about Christian religious influences on the Founding Fathers and equipping children with the ability to think for themselves.

"We've been winning the debate, and that's why there's been so much attention," said McLeroy, the SBOE chairman until Senate Democrats blocked his confirmation last year on the grounds that his strong religious beliefs interfered with the appropriate development of curriculum. He describes himself as a "young earth" creationist who believes dinosaurs once co-existed with people on a planet less than 10,000 years old.

His GOP primary challenger is Thomas Ratliff of Mt. Pleasant, son of retired GOP state senator and former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff.

"Don McLeroy is the most well-intentioned guy up there, but his beliefs are a little bit frightening," said Ratliff, a lobbyist. "What the real battle is over is people who think that they know education better than the education community saying, 'We want people who will listen to us.'" When the social conservatives failed last year in their effort to ensure students were exposed to the "weaknesses" of the theory of evolution, they rallied successfully around several amendments that largely accomplished the same result: Students will be asked to analyze and evaluate two of evolution's key tenets: natural selection and common ancestry.

"We did not put any religion in those standards," McLeroy said.

The social conservatives have drawn fire for rejecting a popular third grade math textbook on grounds that it's "too fuzzy;" and for disregarding teacher and educator advice on new curriculum standards for English language arts and reading, science and social studies.

Critics complain that the social conservatives invoke ideology and reject experts' advice. Their rejection of Bill Martin Jr., author of "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" and hundreds of other children's books because they confused him with academic Bill Martin, author of "Ethical Marxism," drew some publicity.

They also yanked a recommendation that United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta be required reading in third-grade textbooks as an example of good citizenship. She once served on the University of California System Board of Regents, but the social conservatives removed her because of her past membership in the Democratic Socialists of America Party.

Open seat

Departing board member Dunbar, whose 2008 book, "One Nation Under God" advocated for more religion in the public square, encouraged Austin patents attorney Brian Russell to run for her seat.

Russell calls himself a pro-life, pro-family conservative Republican who supports a rigorous, knowledge-based education that teaches an unashamedly patriotic view of American history, emphasizing God-given individual rights and limited government enshrined in the Constitution.

He faces Rebecca Osborne, a high school teacher from Round Rock, and Marsha Farney, a former educator and stay-at-home parent in Georgetown, in the GOP primary.

Osborne said she's running because of a disconnect she sees between the state board of education and the classroom.

"We need a voice of an educator there on the board and that's a voice that I have to bring," Osborne said. "It's not about taking sides. It's about starting to focus on what we need to do for kids."

Osborne has been running for the past year, campaigning after school and on weekends. She has been endorsed by former Sen. Ratliff and by the Texas Parent PAC.

Farney calls herself a common sense conservative who says students must graduate with the necessary skills to either enter college, technical training or competitively enter the workplace.

Austin educator Judy Jennings is the lone Democrat running in District 10.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Evolution education update: February 19, 2010

A new poll on the acceptance of evolution in Texas, a virtual book party at AIBS, and five reasons why evolution is important.

POLLING EVOLUTION IN TEXAS

A new poll suggests that a slim majority of Texans reject evolution, according to a story in the Texas Tribune (February 17, 2010), which also noted that "[n]early a third of Texans believe humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time." David Prindle, a professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin, who composed the questions, quipped that the poll confirmed the comedian Lewis Black's claim that a significant proportion of the American people think that The Flintstones was a documentary.

Among the questions on the poll was the standard Gallup question -- "Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?" -- with the choices (1) "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the process"; (2) "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, and God had no part in the process"; and (3) "God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago."

In the Texas poll, 38% of respondents chose (1), 12% chose (2), 38% chose (3), and 12% chose a fourth option, "Don't know." Comparing the results with a national Gallup poll conducted in 2008, in which 36% of respondents chose (1), 14% chose (2), 44% chose (3), and 5% offered a different or no opinion, it might seem as though Texans are slightly less inclined to creationism than the nation at large -- but the explicit presentation of a "Don't know" option in the Texas poll and not in the Gallup poll is probably responsible for the discrepancy. (Also, the Texas poll was only of registered voters.)

By omitting any reference to humans, a different question in the Texas poll in effect tested whether human evolution was especially problematic. Apparently so: only 22% of respondents chose "Life on earth has existed in its present form since the beginning of time"; 15% chose "Life on earth has evolved over time, entirely through 'natural selection,' with no guidance from God"; 53% chose "Life on earth has evolved over time, entirely through 'natural selection,' but with a guiding hand from God"; and 10% chose "Don't know."

Respondents were also asked whether they agree or disagree with "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals": 35% agreed, 51% disagreed, 15% didn't know. In a national survey conducted in 2005, as Jon D. Miller, NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott, and Shinji Okamoto reported in Science, 40% of surveyed Americans agreed, 39% disagreed, and 21% were unsure. Among thirty-two countries discussed in the Science article, the United States was second only to Turkey in its rejection of evolution.

Unsurprisingly, the views of Texans in general are not reflected in the views of Texas's scientific community. As a report of a survey of Texas biologists conducted by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund in conjunction with Raymond Eve summarized, "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."

For the Texas Tribune's story, visit:
http://www.texastribune.org/stories/2010/feb/17/meet-flintstones/

For the Gallup poll from 2008, visit:
http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/evolution-creationism-intelligent-design.aspx

For information about Miller, Scott, and Okamoto's article, visit:
http://ncse.com/news/2006/08/public-acceptance-evolution-science-00991

For information about the poll of Texas scientists, visit:
http://www.tfn.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5621

BOOK PARTY AT AIBS

The American Institute for Biological Sciences is celebrating the launch of its new webstore with a virtual book party, featuring Chris Mooney and Carl Zimmer, at 2:00 p.m. EST on February 25, 2010. Mooney will discuss his and Sheril Kirshenbaum's Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (Basic Books, 2009), Zimmer will discuss his The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution (Roberts and Company, 2009), and both will participate in a discussion on the public understanding of science. Plus copies of their books will be given to two lucky participants! Registration for the virtual book party is free but space is limited, so register now.

For information about the book party, visit:
http://www.aibs.org/events/webinar/aibss-1st-virtual-book-party.html

"FIVE REASONS WHY EVOLUTION IS IMPORTANT"

Writing at the Huffington Post (February 12, 2010), NCSE's Steven Newton offered, in honor of Charles Darwin's 201st birthday, a list of five ways in which evolution is important to medical practice: improving the understanding of H1N1 and emerging diseases, HIV, vaccines, antibiotic resistance, and drug development. "There are a host of other applications of evolution -- agriculture, forensics, bioengineering," he concluded. "But the importance of evolution extends beyond its practical side; evolution explains the diversity of life on this planet, shows us our connection to other living things, and reveals profound insights into the processes of nature. Today, on Darwin's 201st birthday, take a moment to reflect on the importance of evolution."

For Newton's essay, visit:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-newton/five-reasons-why-evolutio_b_459636.html

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://ncse.com -- 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 x310
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncse.com
http://ncse.com

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dispatches from the evolution wars

http://www.texasmonthly.com/blogs/burkablog/?p=6261

Wednesday, February 17, 2010
posted by paulburka at 11:41 AM

This is my transcript of a portion of a radio debate that took place in Bryan last week between State Board of Education candidates Don McLeroy, the incumbent, and Thomas Ratliff in the Republican primary race for SBOE district 9. The district runs north from the Bryan-College Station area through the eastern Dallas suburbs to the Red River. Most of the votes will come from two counties, Brazos and Collin. The debate was carried on KEOS 89.1FM in Bryan. The moderator was Michael Alvard.

Moderator: Tom says on his Web site you believe the earth is only a few thousand years old and that dinosaurs and people lived at the same time. Is that something you believe?

McLeroy: Yes sir, it is. I consider myself a Young Earth Creationist. You know, I didn't put any of that into [science curriculum] standards. When we adopted science standards, I think we won a great victory for scientific integrity. If you look at the science standards that were adopted, they were very specific. They do question what I consider the weaknesses to evolution. That's the stasis of fossils in the fossil record and the complexity of cells, what's the scientific explanation for things in the cell, it's amazingly complex. I am a Young Earth Creationist, but I never let that guide me in [making policy for] the public schools.

Note to readers: The issue of stasis in the fossil record is this: No fossils exist that show a species in transition that is, evolving from one stage to another. This is a common criticism of evolution. If evolution were a viable theory, the argument goes, there should be evidence in the fossil record of a species evolving.

* * * *

I also came across another comment by McLeroy in a debate with Ratliff that took place in Allen: "One of the first real breaches of limited government was public education."

This is a very strange statement to be coming from the former chairman of the board that oversees public education. Is it better to have limited government and uneducated people, or a government that considers educating the people its foremost responsibility? (McLeroy did send his children to public schools.)

Journal of American Association of Integrative Medicine Debuts Print Edition

http://www.massagemag.com/News/massage-news.php?id=8633&catid=journal-of-american-association-of-integrative-medicine-debuts-print-edition&title=

posted:2/17/2010

The American Association of Integrative Medicine's acclaimed journal is going from online to print starting this spring in response to growth.

Feb. 17, 2010, Springfield, MO The American Association of Integrative Medicine, the medical society for the 21st century, has announced that its widely-received flagship periodical, the Journal of the American Association of Integrative Medicine, will become a print publication starting with its spring 2010 issue. Its mission is to provide a forum for integrative medicine professionals through articles, research, opinion pieces and news.

"Most magazines today are going from print to online rather than the other way around," said Dr. Zhaoming Chen, chief spokesman and executive board chairman for the American Association of Integrative Medicine (AAIM). "We are doing the opposite because of tremendous, increased demand in the healthcare industry for integrative medicine information."

To date, there are only a handful of publications worldwide that are dedicated to bridging the gap between alternative and traditional medicine. The Journal of the American Association of

Integrative Medicine originally made its debut in 2007 as an online publication and has since achieved worldwide distribution. With this change in format, the journal will now be accepting advertising from related companies. It will continue to accept article contributions from complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) providers.

About the American Association for Integrative Medicine

Founded in 2000 and headquartered in Springfield, Missouri, the American Association for Integrative Medicine (AAIM) educates and certifies practitioners in the integration of Eastern and Western medicine with the goal of improving clinical outcomes for patients. For consumers, they provide information and education about the benefits of integrative health care, as well as a careful selection of trusted providers. For health-care providers, AAIM promotes their high standards of professional competence to consumers and provides a gathering place for like-minded individuals who are committed to preserving global indigenous therapies and evaluating new approaches. They have thousands of members worldwide representing more than 22 medical specialties. For more information, visit www.aaimedicine.com.