NTS LogoSkeptical News for 31 May 2010

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Monday, May 31, 2010

We Don't Need No Education (Part 2)


By Bryan Wall | May 31 2010 | Posted in The Political Angle

In my previous article, here, I discussed the approach to religious education in Ireland and the various problems, failings of the system that is currently in place and how it is currently changing. In this week's follow on article, I will be discussing the same things but this time my attention is focused on America.

The American Dream?

In the United States, there is no religious instruction whatsoever within the public education system. Whilst this has been the norm for many years, there are certain religious organisations who have been challenging this in recent years, however, I digress. The reason for this is The First Amendment of the American Constitution. The Amendment makes it quite clear that there is to be a complete separation of church and state unlike here in Ireland where the church, as already mentioned, was afforded a special place within the Irish Constitution. The First Amendment made a clear cut distinction between Government and Religion when "after years of debate, the bill for establishing religious freedom passed the Virginia Assembly in 1786, ending the colony's 180 year Anglican religious establishment and placing all religious bodies of the state on an equal footing – free of state influence and wholly dependent on the resources they could raise from the voluntary contributions of their members and friends rather than state government tax dollars.

This clearly cut all the ties the Government and various religious institutions had to each other and therefore, religious influence on the public education system. It allows the various religions in the United States to act without Government influence in their affairs and vice versa. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the bill that was passed in 1786, wrote that "their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State". However a problem has arisen from all of this, especially in more recent years, where certain groups and religious organisations have been pushing the boundaries of the interpretation of the First Amendment. The problem that arises is one when "in the minds of American Christians…there can be no true education without religion" and simply put, there are "those who believe that religion has a supreme place in the education of a child, and that provision should therefore be made for it in its school life". It would appear that despite the "modern" era that we live in, we find there are those who wish to see the public school system in the United States revert to the same type of system here in Ireland where Christian dogma is preached to the detriment of someone from another denominational background.

One of the methods currently being used to introduce religion into public education in the United States is through the use of creationism/intelligent design. These "theories" are passed off as a scientific challenge to Evolution and Natural selection when in fact they are simply the book of Genesis in a different form and are in no way scientific in nature. While on a recent visit to UCC, world famous biologist PZ Myers noted the efforts of religious organisations and people in Texas, who were at the time engaging in a concerted effort, to get the content of school textbooks changed in such a way that they would contain references to creationism/intelligent design. They have recently succeeded in their efforts and this will have huge consequences for the country as a whole. This is because Texas is the largest purchaser of school text books in the United States and what is decided for the curriculum there, is effectively what is decided for the rest of the country as the publishers give in to demand. So now what we now have is the very real possibility that Christian ideals will be taught not only in Texas but across the entire school curriculum, rather subversively, in the United States.

This is a rather insidious development on two levels. Firstly, and obviously, it has serious repercussions for the future of informed and simply correct education in the United States. Children are going to be taught incorrect and simply fallacious information that is being passed off as scientific fact. This leads into the second point. All of this is a further attack on science in the United States. Science suffered under the Presidency of Bush Junior and it was believed that with the election of Obama, the stifling of science would now be a thing of the past. This new development shows otherwise. Certain groups within the United States are intent on indoctrinating the youth of the nation with bare faced lies. These certain groups, as a particular Oxford educated Biologist likes to call them, are nothing more than "yapping terriers of ignorance". These same people have also altered the History curriculum within the school system of Texas. The already mention Thomas Jefferson and his achievements is to be played down and instead pro-slavery Confederate leaders are to take his place due to their "significant contributions". The Civil Rights Movement and the Slave Trade is also to be played down with the latter now being referred to as the "Atlantic triangular trade". It seems these "yapping terriers" are now ensuring that the youth of today are being turned into "yapping terriers" of their own.

In the previous paragraphs and my previous article, it has been clearly shown that the approach to religious education in Ireland has been rather one dimensional simply in the sense that it was always from a Christian point of view. The church was afforded special status and was given the running of the schools within this country for the last few decades with no consideration to those from a non Christian background. In the United States it was the opposite. When it came to the public education system, the approach to religious education was simply non-existent; meaning that there was no religious instruction or interference whatsoever in the education system unlike Ireland. While this may be seen as rather lacking, at least it meant that there was no discrimination, even inadvertently, due to someone's particular religious beliefs or lack of belief. This has begun to change in recent years as "religious pressure on the schools has taken several forms and degrees. Most commonly it has been merely the demand that Bible reading, Bible stories and the Lord's Prayer be made regular parts of the day's school work. Some states have been refused court assent to such programs, while others have been successful in getting approval or have avoided litigation challenging these arrangements" and as already mentioned, creationism/intelligent design has successfully made it into the curriculum in Texas.

This is obviously a completely regressive step where previously there was complete freedom in the education system from religious instruction. While the United States is regressing, we seem to be moving forward as Educate Together offers multidenominational education where religious instruction takes place outside of the regular school hours. Religious education, or the lack of it, needs to be all inclusive. To quote Ninian Smart, "One fallacy is to suppose that our vision – our faith – has the whole truth. Unfortunately Christianity, like other religions, often supposes that its scriptures are wholly true. This is enough to alienate sensitive people". For education to be all inclusive, the approach to religious education needs to be sensitive to the beliefs of others and not simply dictate what they are or are not supposed to believe.

We Don't Need no Education


By Bryan Wall | Feb 23 2010 | Posted in The Political Angle

Irish classrooms remain largely unchanged since the foundation of the State.

The education system in Ireland today is roughly the same type of system that was set up during the foundation of the State; that being the teaching of religion in the class room has always been a prominent feature of Irish education. The religion that was taught in the classroom has always been predominantly of the Catholic ethos.

This is due in no small part to the way the education system has been set up. The Catholic Church has had a monopoly on education in Ireland for decades and therefore they decided what was taught and what wasn't. Up until recently, this was the complete antithesis to the education system in the United States of America. There the separation of Church and State has been enshrined in the Constitution since the foundation of the country unlike in Ireland where the Church was guaranteed a special place within the Irish Constitution since day one.

Over the following paragraphs, and next week or two, I intend to discuss how the education system has been set up in Ireland with special attention given to the religious aspect of it, how it is now changing and I shall also discuss the system in the United States, how it differs and I will briefly mention some of the more current controversies gripping it.

As I have already mentioned, the vast majority of schools in Ireland, in particular primary schools, are effectively under the management of the Catholic Church. This is the way it has been in Ireland for as long as the "Free State" has existed. The Government conceded the education of children to the Church. One reason behind this is that in the early years of the State, the Government could simply not afford to run schools on their own so they passed the responsibility over to the Church who became the patrons. Even all of the primary teaching colleges, apart from one, are owned by Catholic Religious Orders under the Patronage of the Bishop. This in turn has led to some serious problems within the education system over the years.

The curriculum has been set up in such a way as to assume belief in the Christian notion of a God. For example, there are religious references in otherwise secular texts for school such as "an English reader textbook, Silver Springs, published by the educational publishers, Fallons, and used by pupils in fourth class, contains 8 texts which are religious". This is the norm within the education system and it obviously leaves no allowances for a child who may be from a non-denominational background. Although the above is only one example, "the assumptions underlying many of these school textbooks, is that the children reading them share the same religious faith. They also treat matters of faith as factual".

Belief in the Christian god is assumed and this therefore excludes children who may be of another religious belief or, as I have already mentioned, those who come from a non-denominational family/background. However, the Christian domination of the education system is at odds with guidelines published in "the document which governs the management of primary schools, the Rules for National Schools of the Department of Education, which upholds the "traditional" separation of religious and secular instruction". While it mentions the "traditional separation", this is merely lip service and in reality it is a rather fallacious statement. The simple fact is that Christianity effectively permeates throughout the majority of the school system and curriculum. For example "in the Social and Environmental Studies section of the curriculum…a 1983 Inspector's Report found that integration with religion, language and art/craft was a regular feature of the teaching of this subject". Catholic Church has exerted its influence in all facets of the education system over the years. To put it succinctly, the Patron, i.e. the Church, has the final say on most matters and one example in particular, from 1988, shows this when "in Limerick a problem arose where the School Board would not ratify a decision by the Diocesan Assessors to appoint a Principle Teacher. The matter was voted on three times, with the same results on each occasion. After the third vote, the Chairperson, who was the local Parish Priest, advised the Board to resign en masse, which is what happened. The applicant who was favoured by the Diocesan Assessors was then appointed to the position". Even when it came to the possible merging of denominational secondary sector schools and the non-denominational vocational sector in 1971, "Catholic Bishops had made it clear to the ASTI that the Catholic character of the schools would have to be retained in an amalgamated situation".

This has been changing in recent years as Ireland has become more and more multi-cultural and as a result, multi-denominational. In order to address this, a relatively new organisation, Educate Together, has been set up in which the Christian ethos is not main guiding principle of the school system. This is a particularly pertinent point seeing as the largest religious minority in the 2006 census were those who declared themselves of no particular faith. Educate Together promotes the idea of multidenominational schools where religious instruction is given outside of normal class hours. The management of the schools allows parents to organise "doctrinal instruction classes" outside of regular school hours. In place of in class religious instruction there is an "Ethical Education Curriculum" put in its place which is divided into four strands, Moral and Spiritual, Justice and Equality, Belief Systems and Ethics and the Environment. "The aims and objectives of each strand are underpinned by core values such as respect for self, respect for others, respect and knowledge of difference, gender equity, respect for the environment and the rights and responsibility of being a citizen from a local perspective but also on a global level". Educate Together currently manage 56 National Schools throughout the country. This accounts for roughly 10,000 students who are receiving an education in which their particular denomination is not an issue. The organisation also has plans to open a further 50 national schools over the next 5 years and they also wish to become involved in second level education.

Overall they believe that the education system in general needs to be changed but also with particular attention paid to second level education. As the head of the organisation himself has said, the only aim of the Leaving Certificate is to achieve the maximum amount of points within a narrow set of academic tests. This is something that I have strongly believed in for a number of years. The Leaving Certificate is in no way a measure of intelligence. If it was then by those standards I am rather lacking in higher cognitive abilities. It prepares you for third level education in a rather minimalistic way. You are not taught to think critically or to assess things from an objective point of view. Instead you are made to learn off things verbatim in order to regurgitate it over a series of exams across a number of days. The ludicrousness of this is surely self evident but many people, including those within the Government, do not see this at all. Once someone has made the leap into third level, a lot, but not all, of what they had previously learned in second level has become redundant and they are forced to unlearn what they previously took as gospel.

While education in Ireland has been and is approached from a Christian perspective, in the United States however, the opposite has generally been the case. This and more will be discussed next week.

Nelson McCausland 'met creationists before museums request'


Monday, 31 May 2010

Culture Minister Nelson McCausland made his controversial calls for museums across Northern Ireland to give more recognition to creationism beliefs after meeting a group of Bible evangelists led by a fellow DUP man, it has emerged.

The Caleb Foundation, a group renowned for its staunch defence of the literal truth of the Bible story, said Mr McCausland penned a letter outlining his views to museum chiefs after meeting members of the group to hear their concerns.

The Culture Minister was last week accused of trying to interfere in the running of museums in the province after it emerged he wrote to the trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) asking them to give more prominence to Ulster-Scots and the Orange Order in exhibits.

Most controversially, he also asked for alternative views on the origin of the universe — including the creationism concept of God creating the universe in contrast to the scientific theory of evolution — to be represented in the exhibitions.

Chair of the Caleb Foundation, Wallace Thompson, a member of the DUP, confirmed a delegation met Mr McCausland late last year.

They said the minister was receptive to their concerns that the museum showed a "lack of balance which had tipped sideways so far, it had fallen right over".

In a letter to Mr McCausland last April, the Foundation said it was "absolutely appalled" at the exhibits in the revamped Ulster Museum, which it described as "wholly misleading propaganda".

The letter added: "Those who visit the Nature Zone, including impressionable young children, will be seriously misled and misinformed."

The Nature Zone explores the widely-accepted scientific theory of evolution.

Mr Thompson told the Sunday Times that most of the Caleb group's members were apolitical but added: "Devolution has helped us in that in a number of key departments, like finance, tourism, culture, arts and leisure, we have ministers sympathetic to where we are coming from."

Mr McCausland denied his letter to the museum trustees had been prompted by meeting the Caleb Foundation delegation.

"All public bodies must take account of such matters as good relations, equality and human rights and it is my responsibility as Minister to remind arm's-length bodies of these things." He said the inclusion of anti-Darwinian theories was "a human-rights issue".

Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/nelson-mccausland-lsquomet-creationists-before-museums-requestrsquo-14826091.html#ixzz0pWgDp6wL

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Closer Look at Textbooks


Written by Raven Clabough
Friday, 28 May 2010 13:32

In the debate over textbook content, the two major points of contention always seem to be the teaching of evolution, and American history overall. Students are schooled to believe that evolution is a fact, not a theory, and that America is a democracy, when it is in fact a Constitutional Republic, and that the Constitution is a living document that evolves over time.

Perhaps most disturbing is the absolute rewriting of history and blatant falsities that are being presented to the influential young minds in some textbooks, including concepts like "FDR saved America from depression" and "Woodrow Wilson was a progressive hero."

In light of the recent controversy surrounding the Texas Board of Education, and what may be an improvement on the information taught to America's youth, I suddenly became curious about the "facts" found in the textbooks in my own state of residence: Florida.

On evolution, Florida's Holt Science and Technology textbook for eighth graders indicates: "Scientists observe that species have changed over time. They also observe that the inherited characteristics in populations change over time. Scientists think that as populations change over time, new species form. Thus, newer species descend from older species. The process in which populations gradually change over time is called evolution." When discussing the evidence for evolution, the textbook refers to fossils and fossil records, case studies of whales, and DNA. Of course, there is an entire section dedicated to the greatness that was Charles Darwin, and much of the speculative language disappears. However, the textbook does refer to Darwin's hypothesis on natural selection as a theory.

The problem with the Holt Science textbook, however, is that even though it was copyrighted as recently as 2006, there is no mention of the alternative discoveries that dispute the theory of evolution. In 2001, the Discovery Institute launched a list of hundreds of scientists who dissent from Darwin's Theory of Evolution. According to the Institute, "During recent decades, new scientific evidence from many scientific disciplines such as cosmology, physics, biology, "artificial intelligence" research, and others have caused scientists to begin questioning Darwinism's central tenet of natural selection and studying the evidence supporting it in greater detail." The letter of dissent states, "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."

Of the reasons for the dissent, the Center for Science and Culture indicated that Darwin's theory of "microevolution," changes within existing species, is uncontroversial and supported by a plethora of evidence, but that his theory of "macroevolution," large-scale changes over geological time, was "controversial right from the start." The Center states, "In the first few decades of the twentieth century, skepticism over this aspect of evolution was so strong that Darwin's theory went into eclipse." Dissenting scientists argue that the genetic mutations necessary to account for the theory of "macroevolution" would produce mostly harmful effects, not positive effects like the development of the human eye.

Now, I do not pretend to thoroughly comprehend evolutionary theory, but one thing seems certain. Evidence uncovered after Darwin's death has created a divide between scientists who do and do not subscribe to the theory of macroevolution, and that it is certainly worth mentioning in the Science textbooks. According to the Center for Science and Culture, "Since the controversy over microevolution and macroevolution is at the heart of Darwin's theory, and since evolutionary theory is so influential in modern biology, it is a disservice to students for biology curricula to ignore the controversy entirely … it is inaccurate to give students the impression that the controversy has been resolved and that all scientists have reached a consensus on the issue".

It seems fair to say, unfortunately, that political correctness plays too much of a role in the content of school textbooks. In fact, according to a Rasmussen poll, 55 percent of parents believe that to be the case. If a science textbook even suggests that Darwin's theory of evolution may be false, the writers are charged with supporting creationism. To avoid that clash, they simply leave out contradictory data.

In the same Rasmussen poll, a mere 31 percent of parents believed history textbooks portray American History accurately. On Glenn Beck's May 25 episode, he furiously discussed how history is being rewritten to be politically correct. He pointed to a Virginia State McDonald Publishing History textbook that discussed the Declaration of Independence and said, "The declaration expanded these ideas that all men are created equal and they are endowed … with certain unalienable rights." The words "by their Creator" were removed and replaced by ellipses.

Fortunately, Florida's McDougal Littell Creating America eight grade textbook does not attempt to remove God's role from the founding of American independence from British rule.

Where the textbook falls short, unfortunately, is in the discussion of FDR's presidency. The book accurately asserts that "the New Deal did not end the Depression" and even states that the New Deal did forever change the U.S. government. However, in the half-page mention of the Japanese internment camps, little focus is given to the overall and blatant injustice of the internment program. The program is summed up as follows:

In the days and weeks after Pearl Harbor, several newspapers declared Japanese Americans to be a security threat. President Roosevelt eventually responded to the growing anti-Japanese hysteria. In February 1942, he signed an order that allowed for the removal of Japanese and Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast. This action came to be known as the Japanese-American internment. More than 110,000 men, women, and children were rounded up. They had to sell their homes and possessions and leave their jobs. These citizens were placed in internment camps, areas where they were kept under guard. In these camps, families lived in single rooms with little privacy. About two-thirds of the people interned were Nisei, Japanese Americans born in the United States.

And that's it. There is no mention of what happened to the Japanese after the war, no real focus of what life was like in these internment camps, and no discussion of how most of these citizens did not have their properties restored to them upon their release.

Likewise, the textbook does not mention the other prejudiced practices under FDR, including the imposition of restrictions on Italian and Germans living in the United States. According to the German American Internee Coalition, FDR "interned at least 11,000 persons of German ancestry" even though the law stated only "enemy aliens" could be interned. Under FDR, the Department of Justice (DOJ) "instituted very limited due process protections for those arrested." Also under FDR, "pursuant to the Alien Enemies Act, DOJ created a network of prohibited zones and restricted areas. Enemy aliens were forbidden to enter or remain in certain areas and their movements severely restricted in others.... Pursuant to Presidential Executive Order 9066, the military could restrict the liberties of citizens and aliens, as it deemed necessary."

Yet none of that information appears in the McDougal Littell textbook. Nor does the textbook discuss FDR's creation of the Office of War Information, which virtually regulated all information in print, inhibiting freedom of press and speech.

The issue with leaving out such pertinent information is that it lulls American students into a false sense of security about their government. To know history is to avoid repeating it. People who accuse governments' critics of being "conspiracy theorists" are unaware that much of what people say could "never happen in America" already has.

For these reasons, and many more, it is certainly no wonder the Texas Board of Education felt compelled to investigate the content of the textbooks. It should even prompt other states to take similar actions of scrutinizing textbooks to examine what is being left out or glossed over.

Intelligent design to be taught in Queensland schools under national curriculum


by Carly Hennessy From: The Sunday Mail (Qld) May 30, 2010 12:00AM CREATIONISM and intelligent design will be taught in Queensland state schools for the first time as part of the new national curriculum.

Creationists dismiss the science of evolution, instead believing that living things are best explained by an intelligent being or God, rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.

The issue of creationism being taught in schools has caused huge controversy in the US, where some fundamentalist religious schools teach it as a science subject instead of Darwin's theory of evolution.

In Queensland schools, creationism will be offered for discussion in the subject of ancient history, under the topic of "controversies".

Don't miss The Courier-Mail on Tuesday for the 2010 High School Report, an eight-page liftout containing Year 12 results, including OPs, from every school across the state

Teachers are still formulating a response to the draft national curriculum, scheduled to be introduced next year.

Queensland History Teachers' Association head Kay Bishop said the curriculum asked students to develop their historical skills in an "investigation of a controversial issue" such as "human origins (eg, Darwin's theory of evolution and its critics").

"It's opening up opportunities for debate and discussion, not to push a particular view," Ms Bishop said. Classroom debate about issues encouraged critical thinking – an important tool, she said.

Associated Christian Schools executive officer Lynne Doneley welcomed the draft curriculum, saying it cemented the position of a faith-based approach to teaching.

"We talk to students from a faith science basis, but we're not biased in the delivery of curriculum," Mrs Doneley said. "We say, 'This is where we're coming from' but allow students to make up their own minds."

But Griffith University humanities lecturer Paul Williams said it was important to be cautious about such content.

"It's important that education authorities are vigilant that this is not a blank cheque to push theological barrows," Mr Williams said.

"I would be loath to see it taught as theory.

"It's up there with the world being occupied by aliens since Roswell."

Ms Bishop said there were bigger problems with the national curriculum.

History teachers are planning to object to repetitive subject matter, such as World War I being a major part of the Year 10 course and repeated in Year 11.

Mystery fossil is ancestor of squid


Page last updated at 12:13 GMT, Thursday, 27 May 2010 13:13 UK
By Katia Moskvitch Science reporter, BBC News

The ancient squid hunted using its two long tentacles The ancestors of modern squid may have existed half a billion years ago - a lot earlier than previously thought.

In a new study, Canadian researchers identified a previously unclassifiable fossil that was long believed to belong perhaps to the shrimp family.

They called it Nectocaris pteryx - a small soft-bodied cephalopod with two tentacles rather than the eight or 10 seen in today's octopuses.

The new survey's results were presented in the journal Nature.

The findings make the ancestors of modern squid and octopuses at least 30 million years older.

Evolutionary biologist Martin Smith, the main author of the study, told PA news agency that the findings bring cephalopods much closer to the first appearance of complex animals.

"We go from very simple pre-Cambrian life-forms to something as complex as a cephalopod in the geological blink of an eye, which illustrates just how quickly evolution can produce complexity," said Mr Smith.

The authors described Nectocaris as a kite-shaped creature that was flattened from top to bottom. They say it was between two and five cm long and had large, stalked eyes.

The tiny animal is believed to have been a carnivore that hunted for prey with two long grasping tentacles. It used a nozzle-like funnel under its eyes that could "swivel like a pivoted cannon" to jet itself around the ocean - just like modern squids and octopuses.

'Unclassified' creature

Nectocaris was a small, kite-shaped creature The fossil isn't a new find - it was discovered decades ago in the Burgess Shale deposits atop a mountain in Yoho National Park in British Columbia, Canada.

The Burgess Shale Formation is one of the world's most famous fossil fields.

Scientists tried to describe the fossil for the first time in 1976 - but back then, they just weren't sure where it belonged on the evolutionary tree.

They dubbed it "unclassified". According to Jean-Bernard Caron, Mr Smith's co-author, researchers originally thought the mystery creature could have been a relative of anything from a lobster to a fish.

But after Mr Smith, a University of Toronto PhD student, decided to re-examine the fossil together with 91 new specimens collected in recent years, scientists were finally able to give the animal its proper place in history.

'Dangerous' Herbal Supplement Claims Under Fire in Government Report


'Deceptive' Claims About Garlic, Ginkgo Biloba and Ginseng Found in Undercover Investigation by Government Accountability Office
ABC NEWS Business Unit May 26, 2010 —

Sales people marketing herbal supplements gave "potentially dangerous advice" to undercover government investigators, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The report, released in conjunction with today's Senate committee hearing on dietary supplements and the elderly, revealed the results of an investigation in which GAO investigators posed as elderly customers to ask sales staffers at 22 storefront and mail-order retailers about herbal dietary supplements. The GAO also reviewed marketing claims made on 30 retail websites.

Investigators found that sales people gave them "potentially dangerous advice," such as suggesting that they could take supplements instead of prescription medication, according to the report.

"What a lot of people do is ... they start taking both at the same time and then slowly you will stop taking the other prescription medicine and just continue with this," said one seller on an audio recording made by the GAO.

A seller during another GAO sales call said that a combination supplements can prevent or cure serious conditions.

"My mom and dad both have high cholesterol and problems maintaining blood pressure; I don't have either one, but my parents have both. If I wouldn't have started taking my product ... I would eventually get it, because it's in my genes," the seller told the GAO.

When the GAO repeated the false information back, the seller once again claimed it was true.

In some cases, the promises were not just false, they were dangerous. One herbal supplement seller said that a customer could take Ginkgo biloba with aspirin to improve memory.

The Food and Drug Administration warns that combining aspirin and ginkgo could increase a person's risk of internal bleeding, the GAO said.

"In making these claims, sellers put the health of consumers at risk," Greg Kurtz, head of the GAO Forensic Audits and Special Investigations unit, said in remarks prepared for the committee hearing.

The GAO also listed what it called deceptive claims made by herbal supplement marketers tied to Ginkgo biloba and other popular supplements as ginseng, including assertions that the latter can cure cancer and that the former can treat both impotence and Alzheimer's disease.

Steve Mister, the president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association for supplement manufacturers and ingredient suppliers, defended the industry in an interview with ABCNews.com.

"We understand that there are going to be examples of a few industry outliers who may be violating the law, but that is certainly not representative for the vast majority of the industry which is abiding by the law," he said.

Mister, who said Tuesday that he had not yet seen the GAO report, was scheduled to testify at today's hearing.

Supplement Industry Says It Polices Itself

Mister said that the council has committed $1.5 million for an eight-year program at the Better Business Bureau's National Advertising Division to scrutinize supplement advertising and issue decisions on when supplement sellers should change or pull advertising claims. When a company ignores a National Advertising Division decision, the division refers the ads in question to the Federal Trade Commission.

"This is a good example of industry trying to police itself," he said.

But Mister said the council also supports the FDA's oversight of the industry. It has repeatedly asked, he said, for the Food and Drug Administration to be provided with more resources so it they can enforce a 1994 law that allows the FDA to remove a supplement from the market when the agency can show that the product is not safe.

Claims for Gingko, Ginseng and Garlic Discredited by GAO

The GAO found cases of deceptive marketing or questionable claims tied to Ginkgo biloba, ginseng, garlic and chamomile, according to Kurtz's testimony. The GAO did not disclose the names of the herbal supplement marketers it investigated, but Kurtz said that "all cases of deceptive or questionable marketing and inappropriate medical advice" have been referred to the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission.

The GAO said it found herbal supplement sellers making the following deceptive claims:

Claim: Garlic prevents obesity and diabetes and cures cardiovascular disease.

GAO Comment: NIH (National Institutes of Health) does not recognize this herbal supplement as a treatment for obesity, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease.

Claim: Ginseng cures diseases, including cancer.

GAO Comment: NIH specifically recommends that breast and uterine cancer patients avoid this product, as it may have an adverse interaction with some cancer drugs.

Claim: Garlic can be taken in lieu of prescribed high blood pressure medication.

GAO Comment: Evidence that this product reduces high blood pressure is unclear, and both NIH and FDA state that no dietary supplement can take the place of prescribed medicines.

Claim: Ginkgo biloba can be taken with a daily aspirin prescription.

GAO Comment: Taking this product with aspirin may increase the risk of bleeding.

Claim: Ginkgo biloba treats Alzheimer's disease, depression, and impotence.

GAO Comment: No clear scientific evidence supports any of these treatment claims.

Trace Amounts of Metals, Including Lead, Found in Supplements

The GAO also found trace amounts of lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic or pesticides in 37 of the 40 herbal supplement products tested. But the level of the contaminants in the products, the GAO report said, did not exceed FDA or Environmental Protection Agency regulations on dietary supplements.

Mister said that plants grown in the ground -- whether they're in a grocery store's vegetable aisle or used as a supplement ingredients -- absorb trace amounts of what's in the soil beneath them. As long as the amount of contaminants present in supplements isn't enough to cause safety hazards, there's no reason to label them, he said.

"In the same way, we don't label squash or melons," he said.

ABC News' Tom Shine contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2010 ABC News Internet Ventures

When science clashes with beliefs? Make science impotent


By John Timmer | Last updated a day ago

It's hardly a secret that large segments of the population choose not to accept scientific data because it conflicts with their predefined beliefs: economic, political, religious, or otherwise. But many studies have indicated that these same people aren't happy with viewing themselves as anti-science, which can create a state of cognitive dissonance. That has left psychologists pondering the methods that these people use to rationalize the conflict.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology takes a look at one of these methods, which the authors term "scientific impotence"—the decision that science can't actually address the issue at hand properly. It finds evidence that not only supports the scientific impotence model, but suggests that it could be contagious. Once a subject has decided that a given topic is off limits to science, they tend to start applying the same logic to other issues.

The paper is worth reading for the introduction alone, which sets up the problem of science acceptance within the context of persuasive arguments and belief systems. There's a significant amount of literature that considers how people resist persuasion, and at least seven different strategies have been identified. But the author, Towson University's Geoffrey Munro, attempts to carve out an exceptional place for scientific information. "Belief-contradicting scientific information may elicit different resistance processes than belief-contradicting information of a nonscientific nature," he argues. "Source derogation, for example, might be less effective in response to scientific than nonscientific information."

It might be, but many of the arguments against mainstream science make it clear that it's not. Evolution doubters present science as an atheistic conspiracy; antivaccination advocates consider the biomedical research community to be hopelessly corrupted by the pharmaceutical industry; and climatologists have been accused of being in it to foster everything from their own funding to global governance. Clearly, source derogation is very much on the table.

If that method of handling things is dismissed a bit abruptly, Munro makes a better case for not addressing an alternative way of dismissing scientific data: identifying perceived methodological flaws. This definitely occurs, as indicated by references cited in the paper, but it's not an option for everyone. Many people reject scientific information without having access to the methodology that produced it or the ability to understand it if they did. So, although selective attacks on methodology take place, they're not necessarily available to everyone who chooses to dismiss scientific findings.

What Munro examines here is an alternative approach: the decision that, regardless of the methodological details, a topic is just not accessible to scientific analysis. This approach also has a prominent place among those who disregard scientific information, ranging from the very narrow—people who argue that the climate is simply too complicated to understand—to the extremely broad, such as those among the creationist movement who argue that the only valid science takes place in the controlled environs of a lab, and thereby dismiss not only evolution, but geology, astronomy, etc.

To get at this issue, Munro polled a set of college students about their feelings about homosexuality, and then exposed them to a series of generic scientific abstracts that presented evidence that it was or wasn't a mental illness (a control group read the same abstracts with nonsense terms in place of sexual identities). By chance, these either challenged or confirmed the students' preconceptions. The subjects were then given the chance to state whether they accepted the information in the abstracts and, if not, why not.

Regardless of whether the information presented confirmed or contradicted the students' existing beliefs, all of them came away from the reading with their beliefs strengthened. As expected, a number of the subjects that had their beliefs challenged chose to indicate that the subject was beyond the ability of science to properly examine. This group then showed a weak tendency to extend that same logic to other areas, like scientific data on astrology and herbal remedies.

A second group went through the same initial abstract-reading process, but were then given an issue to research (the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent to violent crime), and offered various sources of information on the issue. The group that chose to discount scientific information on the human behavior issue were more likely than their peers to evaluate nonscientific material when it came to making a decision about the death penalty.

There are a number of issues with the study: the sample size was small, college students are probably atypical in that they're constantly being exposed to challenging information, and there was no attempt to determine the students' scientific literacy on the topic going in. That last point seems rather significant, since the students were recruited from a psychology course, and majors in that field might be expected to already know the state of the field. So, this study would seem to fall in the large category of those that are intriguing, but in need of a more rigorous replication.

It's probably worth making the effort, however, because it might explain why doubts about mainstream science seem to travel in packs. For example, the Discovery Institute, famed for hosting a petition that questions our understanding of evolution, has recently taken up climate change as an additional issue (they don't believe the scientific community on that topic, either). The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine is best known for hosting a petition that questions the scientific consensus on climate change, but the people who run it also promote creationism and question the link between HIV and AIDS.

Within the scientific community, there has been substantial debate over how best to deal with the public's refusal to accept basic scientific findings, with different camps arguing for increasing scientific literacy, challenging beliefs, or emphasizing the compatibility between belief and science. Confirming that the scientific impotence phenomenon is real might induce the scientific community to consider whether any of the public engagement models they're currently arguing over would actually be effective at addressing this issue.

Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2010. DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00588.x (About DOIs).

"Science vs. Religion" discovers what scientists really think about religion


Sunday, May 30, 2010


What Scientists Really Think

By Elaine Howard Ecklund

Oxford Univ. 228 pp. $27.95

Americans are almost evenly divided between those who feel science conflicts with religion and those who don't. Both sides have scientific backers. Biologist Richard Dawkins rallies atheists by arguing that science renders religious faith unnecessary and irrational. Geneticist Francis S. Collins (before becoming NIH director) organized evangelical scientists to offer a vision of science and faith reinforcing each other.

Rice University sociologist Elaine Ecklund offers a fresh perspective on this debate in "Science vs. Religion." Rather than offering another polemic, she builds on a detailed survey of almost 1,700 scientists at elite American research universities -- the most comprehensive such study to date. These surveys and 275 lengthy follow-up interviews reveal that scientists often practice a closeted faith. They worry how their peers would react to learning about their religious views.

Fully half of these top scientists are religious. Only five of the 275 interviewees actively oppose religion. Even among the third who are atheists, many consider themselves "spiritual." One describes this spiritual atheism as being rooted in "wonder about the complexity and the majesty of existence," a sentiment many nonscientists -- religious or not -- would recognize. By not engaging with religion more fully and publicly, "the academy is really doing itself a big disservice," worries one scientist. As shown by conflicts over everything from evolution to stem cells to climate policy, breakdowns in communication between scientists and religious communities cause real problems, especially for scientists trying to educate increasingly religious college students.

Religious groups -- creationist movements in particular -- are not without blame here. Creationist attacks on evolution "have polarized the public opinion such that you're either religious or you're a scientist!" a devout physicist complains. Indeed, the National Science Board recently spiked a report on American knowledge about evolution, claiming that it was too difficult to tell the difference between religious objections to evolution and questions raised about the state of the science.

Only through a genuine dialogue between scientists and the broader public can these divisions be bridged. To her credit, Ecklund avoids editorializing even while encouraging such dialogue. She gives voice to scientists, relaying and synthesizing their experience. Though "Science vs. Religion" is aimed at scientists, her myth-busting and her thoughtful advice can also benefit nonscientists. For Ecklund, the bottom line is recognizing and tolerating religious diversity, honestly discussing science's scope and limits, and openly exploring the disputed borders between scientific skepticism and religious faith.

-- Josh Rosenau

Friday, May 28, 2010

Evolution education update: May 28, 2010

The results of a new survey appear, with questions on evolution, religion, and scientific consensus. The polymathic Martin Gardner is dead. And NCSE is pleased to offer a sample chapter of Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready.


Included in the Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Survey for 2010 were a number of questions about evolution, religion, and scientific consensus -- and as usual there were few surprises in the results.

Asked "[w]hich of these statements comes closest to your views on the origin of biological life," 43% of respondents selected "God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time," 24% selected "biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process," and 18% selected "biological life developed over time from simple substances but God did not guide this process." (The remaining 16% of respondents selected none of these choices, said that they did not know, or refused to answer the question.) Note that the wording of these choices is similar, but not identical to, the standard Gallup choices.

Respondents were also asked "How much have you heard or read about the theory of evolution"; 44% of respondents selected "a lot"; 32% selected "some"; 23% selected "not too much" or "nothing." Asked "would you say the theory of evolution conflicts with your own religious beliefs, or is mostly compatible with your own religious beliefs," respondents were almost evenly split, with 42% reporting conflict and 43% reporting compatibility. Unsurprisingly, "[t]hose who say the Bible is the actual Word of God are more likely than others to adopt a creation perspective about the origins of life and report that the theory of evolution conflicts with their religious beliefs."

Asked "do you think the evidence on evolution is widely accepted within the scientific community, or do many scientists have serious doubts about it," 53% of respondents indicated that they thought that it was widely accepted and 31% indicated that they thought that many scientists have serious doubts about it. The report noted that "[t]hose who report being more informed about scientific and medical discoveries are more likely than those who report being less informed to view the theory of evolution as widely accepted in the scientific community," and emphasized that evolution is indeed widely accepted in the scientific community.

The results are broadly consistent with results from a previous VCU Life Sciences survey from 2005, in which 42% of respondents preferred "God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time," 26% selected "biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process," and 17% selected "biological life developed over time from simple substances but God did not guide this process." In that survey, the second ("God guided this process") option was misdescribed as "intelligent design"; the 2010 report describes the option as "compatible with an 'intelligent design' or a 'theistic evolution' view."

The survey, conducted for VCU Life Sciences by the VCU Center for Public Policy, was conducted by landline and cell telephone with 1001 adults nationwide, from May 12 to May 18, 2010. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

For the report (PDF), visit:

For the report of the 2005 survey (PDF), visit:

And for NCSE's collection of materials on polls and surveys, visit:


The polymathic Martin Gardner died on May 22, 2010, at the age of 95, according to the obituary in The New York Times (May 23, 2010). Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on October 21, 1914, Gardner studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1936. After working as a reporter and in public relations, he served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1942 to 1946, and then launched a freelance writing career. In 1957, he began writing his "Mathematical Games" column for Scientific American, which ran until 1981. A prolific writer, he wrote books not only on recreational mathematics but also on science and philosophy, literary topics (including his celebrated The Annotated Alice), and pseudoscience. In 1976, he was one of the founders of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry).

In a 1998 interview with Skeptical Inquirer's Kendrick Frazier, Gardner said that as a high school student, "I actually doubted the theory of evolution, having been influenced by George McCready Price, a Seventh-day Adventist creationist. A course in geology convinced me that Price was a crackpot. However, his flood theory of fossils is ingenious enough so that one has to know some elementary geology in order to see where it is wrong. Perhaps this aroused my interest in debunking pseudoscience." Gardner's first book In the Name of Science (1952; reissued as Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, 1957) devoted a chapter to "Geology versus Genesis"; and he returned frequently to the topic, with his collection Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? (2001) even taking its title from a classic challenge to creationism.

For the obituary in The New York Times, visit:

For the interview of Gardner, visit:


NCSE is pleased to offer a free preview of Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture (Scribner 2008; Soft Skull 2010) -- featuring Radosh's account of his visit to Answers in Genesis's Creation Museum. "It took a few hours after leaving the Creation Museum for my head to clear enough to understand how utterly bizarre it was," Radosh writes. "Even if there were other creationists out there who were nuttier than Ken Ham -- Kent Hovind with his tax-evading dinosaurs, Carl Baugh with his pink sky and giant humans -- the ingenuity and sophistication with which Answers in Genesis pursued its agenda pretty much had me persuaded that my quest for the strangest and most hostile manifestation of Christian pop culture had come to an end."

For the preview (PDF), visit:

For information about the book, visit:

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

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Orange Order backs Minister over complaints to museum


GERRY MORIARTY Northern Editor

THE ORANGE Order has backed DUP Minister for Culture Nelson McCausland who was criticised for urging the Ulster Museum to give more prominence to the order, to Ulster Scots and to alternative views on the origins of the universe.

Mr McCausland, meanwhile, has rejected complaints that he was attempting to "ram creationism down the throats of a sceptical public", arguing instead that he is working in the interests of a shared future in Northern Ireland.

Mr McCausland recently wrote to the trustees of the recently refurbished museum. He said he believed that his department and the trustees shared "a common desire to ensure that museums are reflective of the views, beliefs and cultural traditions that make up society in Northern Ireland".

He asked that there be consideration of how best to recognise the role of the Orange Order and other loyal and fraternal bodies, as well as having a focus on Ulster Scots.

He also asked the trustees to consider alternative views of the origin of the universe, viewed as a reference to creationism – although Mr McCausland did not specifically mention creationism.

Mr McCausland defended his action in writing to the museum, saying his letter was balanced and measured. He complained that in a current exhibition at the museum, Plantation to Power Sharing , there was serious under-representation of the role of the Orange Order, particularly in relation to the prominence accorded to the United Irishmen.

English scientist Prof Richard Dawkins in a BBC Radio Ulster discussion with Mr McCausland was dismissive of the Minister's request. He said it would be as valid to have an exhibition on "the stork theory of reproduction" or the museum holding "an exhibition on the flat-Earth theory of geography".

Mr McCausland said Prof Dawkins was being intolerant by writing off "perhaps a third of the population of Northern Ireland as crackpots".

Alliance Assembly member Trevor Lunn said: "This smacks of another attempt by DUP fundamentalists to ram creationism down the throats of a sceptical public following their previous failed attempt to have it included in the educational curriculum."

Sinn Féin Assembly member Barry McElduff accused Mr McCausland of being intent on pursuing a "narrow, partisan, political agenda" and of attempting to impose "undue influence" on the museum.

The Orange Order, however, said it appreciated the support from Mr McCausland.

It too wrote a letter to the museum complaining that there was "little space and weight" accorded the order in the Plantation to Power Sharing exhibition. A spokesman for the museum said the complaints were being considered and a formal response would be issued in due course.

New survey results on evolution


May 27th, 2010

Included in the Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Survey for 2010 were a number of questions about evolution, religion, and scientific consensus — and as usual there were few surprises in the results (PDF, pp. 9-11).

Asked "[w]hich of these statements comes closest to your views on the origin of biological life," 43% of respondents selected "God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time," 24% selected "biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process," and 18% selected "biological life developed over time from simple substances but God did not guide this process." (The remaining 16% of respondents selected none of these choices, said that they did not know, or refused to answer the question.) Note that the wording of these choices is similar, but not identical to, the standard Gallup choices.

Respondents were also asked "How much have you heard or read about the theory of evolution"; 44% of respondents selected "a lot"; 32% selected "some"; 23% selected "not too much" or "nothing." Asked "would you say the theory of evolution conflicts with your own religious beliefs, or is mostly compatible with your own religious beliefs," respondents were almost evenly split, with 42% reporting conflict and 43% reporting compatibility. Unsurprisingly, "[t]hose who say the Bible is the actual Word of God are more likely than others to adopt a creation perspective about the origins of life and report that the theory of evolution conflicts with their religious beliefs."

Asked "do you think the evidence on evolution is widely accepted within the scientific community, or do many scientists have serious doubts about it," 53% of respondents indicated that they thought that it was widely accepted and 31% indicated that they thought that many scientists have serious doubts about it. The report noted that "[t]hose who report being more informed about scientific and medical discoveries are more likely than those who report being less informed to view the theory of evolution as widely accepted in the scientific community," and emphasized that evolution is indeed widely accepted in the scientific community.

The results are broadly consistent with results from a previous VCU Life Sciences survey (PDF, pp. 8-9) from 2005, in which 42% of respondents preferred "God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time," 26% selected "biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process," and 17% selected "biological life developed over time from simple substances but God did not guide this process." In that survey, the second ("God guided this process") option was misdescribed as "intelligent design"; the 2010 report describes the option as "compatible with an 'intelligent design' or a 'theistic evolution' view."

The survey, conducted for VCU Life Sciences by the VCU Center for Public Policy, was conducted by landline and cell telephone with 1001 adults nationwide, from May 12 to May 18, 2010. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Northern Ireland minister calls on Ulster Museum to promote creationism


Nelson McCausland defends letter to trustees urging anti-evolution exhibits

Henry McDonald guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 26 May 2010 11.59 BST

Northern Ireland's born-again Christian culture minister has called on the Ulster Museum to put on exhibits reflecting the view that the world was made by God only several thousand years ago.

Nelson McCausland, who believes that Ulster Protestants are one of the lost tribes of Israel, has written to the museum's board of trustees urging them to reflect creationist and intelligent design theories of the universe's origins.

The Democratic Unionist minister said the inclusion of anti-Darwinian theories in the museum was "a human rights issue".

McCausland defended a letter he wrote to the trustees calling for anti-evolution exhibitions at the museum. He claimed that around one third of Northern Ireland's population believed either in intelligent design or the creationist view that the universe was created about 6,000 years ago.

"I have had more letters from the public on this issue than any other issue," he said.

The minister said he wrote a "very balanced letter" to the museum because he wanted to "reflect the views of all the people in Northern Ireland in all its richness and diversity".

Earlier in his letter to the museum's trustees McCausland said he had "a common desire to ensure that museums are reflective of the views, beliefs and cultural traditions that make up society in Northern Ireland".

His call was condemned by the evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, who said: "If the museum was to go down that road then perhaps they should bring in the stork theory of where babies come from. Or perhaps the museum should introduce the flat earth theory."

Dawkins said it was irrelevant if a large number of people in Northern Ireland refused to believe in evolution. "Scientific evidence can't be democratically decided," Dawkins said.

McCausland's party colleague and North Antrim assembly member Mervyn Storey has been at the forefront of a campaign to force museums in Northern Ireland to promote anti-Darwinian theories.

Storey, who has chaired the Northern Ireland assembly's education committee, has denied that man descended from apes. He believes in the theory that the world was created several thousand years ago, even though the most famous tourist attraction in his own constituency – the Giant's Causeway on the North Antrim coast – is according to all the geological evidence millions of years old.

Last year Storey raised objections to notices at the Giant's Causeway informing the public that the unique rock formation was about 550m years old. Storey believes in the literal truth of the Bible and that the earth was created only several thousand years before Christ's birth.

This latest row over Darwin versus creationism in Northern Ireland comes at a delicate time for the Ulster Museum. Earlier this month it was shortlisted for the UK's largest single arts prize. The Art Fund Prize annually awards £100,000 to a museum or gallery for a project completed in the last year.

The belief that the Earth was divinely created in 4004 BC originates with the writings of another Ulster-based Protestant, Archbishop of Armagh James Ussher, in 1654. Ussher calculated the date based on textual clues in the Old Testament, even settling on a date and time for the moment of creation: in the early hours of 23 October.

Creationism v evolution: Showdown at the Ulster Museum


By Lesley-Anne Henry
Thursday, 27 May 2010

Free Presbyterian minister Reverend David McIlveen believes the Earth was created just 6,000 years ago by God, just like it says in the Bible. Dr Chris Hunt, a lecturer in palaeoecology at Queen's University, teaches evolutionary theory and says science demonstrates that the world is millions of years old.

Yesterday the creationism v evolution debate was given another hearing when it was revealed our Culture Minister Nelson McCausland wrote to the trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland suggesting that alternative views on the origins of the universe should be displayed.

This prompted the Belfast Telegraph to bring representatives of the two disparate views together for a tour of the natural history section of the newly refurbished Ulster Museum.

One of the central attractions in the museum is a replica of a majestic giant Irish deer, which walked the earth about 80,000 years ago. The magnificent animal caught the eye of both the Reverend and the academic.

But the dating of the exhibit creates a problem for Rev McIlveen's view of history. He explained: "I believe that the world is probably around about 6,000 years old and during that time there was the Great Flood which, in my opinion, cleared or wiped out the dinosaurs which were in existence at that time."

But Dr Hunt, a church-going Christian, had his own views on Bible teaching. "I actually see the creation of the world in the Bible as a parable of what really happened for those who weren't able to understand in more depth all that time ago."

As he strolled through the minerals, rocks and fossils section, Rev McIlveen expressed his support for Mr McCausland's view. He even went a step further and called for a Bible to be exhibited alongside the reference books in the museum. "To present the evolutionist view as fact, I think is wrong," he said. Coming across a display of piece of Moon rock, Rev McIlveen said: "I have no reason to doubt this isn't a piece of the Moon, but at the same time, if I was cynical, I would ask where's the proof? It just looks like a piece of coal that has been burnt. I could have come back from Sinai with something and said it was from Jupiter.

"My cynicism deepens. What I am looking at and listening to is only an opinion and nothing more." As they took their arguments to another level in the natural history section it was obvious that Dr Hunt was becoming increasingly frustrated.

And as Rev McIlveen spoke about apples falling from the sky he looked totally baffled.

An invitation to Rev McIlveen to attend one of his lectures at Queen's was side-stepped with a counter-offer for the scientist to join the congregation at his Sandown Church.

Dr Hunt concluded: "The museum records a particular viewpoint which is based on a very great deal of discovered evidence and until that evidence is properly refuted and in detail then I don't think creationists have a scientific leg to stand on.

"So-called creation science is wishful thinking. It's very sad. I feel very sorry for the people who peddle it and I think they have been very badly misguided by the 'creation scientists'.

"This is a museum which records Ulster's past. The Bible only arrived in Ireland 2,000 years ago. The giant Irish deer was here 11,000 years ago. There could well be a very nice exhibit about Christianity and I would be very glad to see it, but at the moment evolution is the only real show in town.

Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/creationism-v-evolution-showdown-at-ulster-museum-14821031.html#ixzz0p7mtFBzy

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dr. Andrew Wakefield, former executive director of Austin's Thoughtful House banned in UK


May 24, 6:35 PM

Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a Britain-born physician at the heart of a controversy over the effects of the MMR vaccine, has been banned from practicing medicine in the U.K.

Wakefield had been the Executive Director of the Austin-based Thoughtful House Center for Children until his resignation in early 2010. Dr. Bryan Jepson is currently listed as the Director of the Medical Center at the clinic.

Wakefield first made headlines with a 1998 study making the case for the Measles, Mumps, Rubella vaccine as a cause of autism published in the Lancet, a worldwide medical journal. The Lancet has since retracted the paper.

According to a report from Associated Press, the study was peer reviewed and led to a resurgence of measles in Western countries as "legions" of parents abandoned the vaccine (source).

"The study has since been widely rejected. From 1998-2004, studies in journals including the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Pediatrics and BMJ published papers showing no link between autism and the measles vaccine". ~ Associated Press, Britain bans doctor who linked autism to vaccine By MARIA CHENG (AP)

As the effects of his study reverberated around the world and the controversy surrounding his assertion that vaccines cause autism grew, Wakefield, his research findings, and his efforts on behalf of children with autism and other developmental disorders have undergone intense scrutiny.

His home country has responded with an inquiry that has led to a ban: he can no longer practice medicine in Britain. As researched by
, "A search of the public records of the Texas Medical Board shows that Andrew Wakefield does not have an active Texas medical license" (source).

Established in 2004, Thoughtful House Center for Children, a project spearheaded by Wakefield, sought to help children diagnosed on the autism spectrum with a goal of "fighting for the recovery of children with developmental disorders through the unique combination of medical care, education, and research" (source).

Wakefield voluntarily resigned under the cloud of controversy. The center is still fully operational and serving children with autism through medical, nutritional, and therapeutic interventions.

An alleged Thoughtful House comment, reportedly posted on a yahoo group and reprinted at scienceblogs.com dated from February 2010 stated,

All of us at Thoughtful House are grateful to Dr. Wakefield for the valuable work he has done here. We fully support his decision to leave Thoughtful House in order to make sure that the controversy surrounding the recent findings of the General Medical Council does not interfere with the important work that our dedicated team of clinicians and researchers is doing on behalf of children with autism and their families.

Additional comments from Thoughtful House have not been posted as a press release or the location of this release is unknown to Austin Special Needs Kids Examiner.

See full report, time line and implications, Britain bans doctor who linked autism to vaccine by MARIA CHENG (AP).

PBS Frontline provides full coverage of this topic at "The Vaccine War: Examining the emotionally charged debate over medical risks vs. benefits and a parent's right to make choices about her child vs. a community's common good..." Watch the full program online.

I'm sorry, Toronto. Nobody deserves Deepak.


Category: Kooks • Skepticism
Posted on: May 13, 2010 5:37 PM, by PZ Myers

Look who's coming to the Royal Ontario Museum: Deepak Chopra. What were they thinking when they invited that pompous fraud to speak?

World renowned teacher, author and philosopher Deepak Chopra presents his latest concepts in the field of mind-body medicine bridging the technological miracles of the West with the wisdom of the East. He will show you how your highest vision of yourself can be turned into physical reality and discuss how you can become a living cell within the body of a living universe. You don't join the cosmic dance - you become the dance. Deepak will address the deeper meaning of our existence including: What is our true nature? What is the meaning and purpose of our existence? How can I transform myself? How can I make a better world? Deepak explains how the greatest spiritual secrets are tied up in this simple answer: You can't change the body without changing the self, and you can't change the self without bringing in the soul. He explains, "It's all one process, and it begins with knowing that your body exists to mirror who you are and who you want to be."

Deepak Chopra is the author of more than 56 books translated into over 35 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers in both the fiction and non-fiction categories. He is a fellow of the American College of Physicians, a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, Adjunct Professor at Kellogg School of Management and Senior Scientist with The Gallup Organization. Time magazine heralds Deepak Chopra as one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century and credits him as "the poet-prophet of alternative medicine." For more information visit: www.deepakchopra.com

Location: Convocation Hall, 31 King's College Circle, University of Toronto

Cost: Price: Ground VIP: $175, Rise Area: $89, 1st Balcony: $69, 2nd Balcony: $49, Behind Stage: $25

There isn't one thing in that block of fluff that interests me in the slightest — it's all noise by a charlatan. But oh, man, look what he's charging! If anyone goes or has an opportunity to work backstage at the hall, please take a photo of the "Ground VIP" section: if I were in Toronto, I'd want to know who the chief airheads in the region were, and that's a fine starting point.

Chromotherapy: Rainbow colours 'offer big relief'


By Kui Kinyanjui

Posted Friday, May 14 2010 at 00:00

At a clinic in the outskirts of Nairobi, a "doctor" makes his prognosis and proceeds to give his prescription: "I recommend one hour of blue light, mixed with a little green. I also recommend that you also go outside 90 minutes before sunset to maximise on the benefits."

This is the world of chromotherapy, where patients with ailments ranging from headaches to terminal cancer are treated using colours of the sun, or as they are more popularly known, the colours of the rainbow.

"All creatures get their energy from the sun, which is made up of seven colours. The cause of any disease is due to lack of a certain colour in the human system," said Lawrence Moreka, a nature therapist at Ignite Centre.

Chromotherapy is a form of treatment which uses colours to treat diseases.

It is mostly used as a supportive therapy to other natural health preserving methods such as yoga, acupressure or natural eating therapies, and is believed to have its roots in India, where ayurvedic priests perfected the art of ridding their faithful of pain using sun therapy.

The use of colours to treat diseases has also been found in ancient Egypt, China and Greece.

Mental imbalance

"Chromotherapy understands that different colours cause different reactions in people. This system of alternative medicinal healing, often combined with other treatments, is used to correct both physical and mental imbalances," says Mr Moreka.

At the Ignite Centre in Kiambu, exotic bird song mingles with rustling trees to create a serene air to the environment.

The centre hosts a slow but steady stream of patients, who, from the expressions in their faces, come in hoping to find new ways to help them feel better.

For many, who have terminal illnesses, a visit to the facility provides an option that can help ease pain.

During the interview, a mother walks in with her eight year old daughter who suffers from cerebral palsy.

She has been on chromotherapy sessions for a month alongside an intensive nutritional programme and acupuncture.

The combination has allegedly helped the young girl to become less dependent on her minders and given her better quality of life.

"She is more manageable and can do more things on her own," said Mr Moreka, who says he treats an average 30 patients a month, bringing in about Sh300,000 in fees.

Business Daily learnt "stressed" executives walk into the facility seeking chromotherapy, services in novel breathing techniques known as Pranayam and magnetotherapy, alongside the more common accupuncture and reflexology.

Mr Moreka says many people are not aware of it but use chromotherapy daily: painting a dining room red to enhance appetite for instance, or putting on a blue suit with a red tie to signify power.

"Colours have the profound power to influence feelings, emotions, and your well being. It's unbelievable but just by shining a coloured light on you I can make your symptoms disappear," said Mr Moreka.

Intrigued by alternative treatments, Mr Moreka travelled to India over 10 years ago to perfect a hobby.

While there, he trained under an Ayurvedic practitioner for five years before returning to Kenya in 2004 to test his new found knowledge on a very sceptical wife.

"Scepticism runs hand in hand with this trade. I can only ask people to give it a try and they will see the difference in their lives," says the practitioner who claims to have cured one HIV positive patient.

Ignite's Experience Centre is just one of the many centres that have popped up all over the country offering alternative health solutions.

Their presence is informed by the rise in demand for alterative health solutions as patients seek more natural remedies.

Despite the growth, the largely untested and un-scientific solutions have come under scrutiny by more traditional medical practitioners.

"The biggest risk posed by alternative medicines is worsening symptoms due to delayed treatment. In my practice, most of my patients have used some form of alternative therapy, but largely with little or no measurable improvement," said Peter A. Lio, an assistant professor of dermatology and paediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago during a recent meeting on the trend.

Big numbers

Globally, consumers are making more visits to chiropractors, acupuncturists, homeopaths, herbalists, and other alternative healers than to all primary care physicians combined.

By 2009, approximately 38 per cent of adults (about 4 in 10) and approximately 12 per cent of children (about 1 in 9) were using some form of alternative medicine, creating a $33 billion industry.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 70 per cent of the world's population relies on alternative systems of healing such as chromotherapy.

All present-day life arose from a single ancestor


Protein analysis rules out multiple sources
By Tina Hesman Saey June 5th, 2010; Vol.177 #12 (p. 12)

A new study uses statistics to test whether life on Earth can be traced back to a common ancestor (example shown in a) or multiple primordial life forms (b). Dotted lines indicate gene swapping between species. M. Steel and D. Penny/Nature 2010One isn't such a lonely number. All life on Earth shares a single common ancestor, a new statistical analysis confirms.

The idea that life-forms share a common ancestor is "a central pillar of evolutionary theory," says Douglas Theobald, a biochemist at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "But recently there has been some mumbling, especially from microbiologists, that it may not be so cut-and-dried."

Because microorganisms of different species often swap genes, some scientists have proposed that multiple primordial life forms could have tossed their genetic material into life's mix, creating a web, rather than a tree of life.

To determine which hypothesis is more likely correct, Theobald put various evolutionary ancestry models through rigorous statistical tests. The results, published in the May 13 Nature, come down overwhelmingly on the side of a single ancestor.

A universal common ancestor is at least 102,860 times more probable than having multiple ancestors, Theobald calculates.

No one has previously put this aspect of evolution through such a stringent test, says David Penny, a theoretical biologist and Allan Wilson Centre researcher at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand. "In one sense, we are not surprised at the answer, but we are very pleased that the unity of life passed a formal test," he says. He and Mike Steel of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, wrote a commentary on the study that appears in the same issue of Nature.

For his analysis, Theobald selected 23 proteins that are found across the taxonomic spectrum but have structures that differ from one species to another. He looked at those proteins in 12 species — four each from the bacterial, archaeal and eukaryotic domains of life.

Then he performed computer simulations to evaluate how likely various evolutionary scenarios were to produce the observed array of proteins.

Theobald found that scenarios featuring a universal common ancestor won hands down against even the best-performing multi-ancestor models. "The universal common ancestor (models) didn't just explain the data better, they were also the simplest, so they won on both counts," Theobald says.

A model that had a single common ancestor and allowed for some gene swapping among species was even better than a simple tree of life. Such a scenario is 103,489 times more probable than the best multi-ancestor model, Theobald found. That's a 1 with 3,489 zeros after it.

Theobald's study does not address how many times life may have arisen on Earth. Life could have originated many times, but the study suggests that only one of those primordial events yielded the array of organisms living today. "It doesn't tell you where the deep ancestor was," Penny says. "But what it does say is that there was one common ancestor among all those little beasties."

Texas schools board rewrites US history with lessons promoting God and guns


US Christian conservatives drop references to slave trade and sideline Thomas Jefferson who backed church-state separation

Sunday 16 May 2010 17.19 BST

Cynthia Dunbar is one of a clutch of US Christian evangelists who have grasped control of the Texas education board. Photograph: Harry Cabluck/AP

Cynthia Dunbar does not have a high regard for her local schools. She has called them unconstitutional, tyrannical and tools of perversion. The conservative Texas lawyer has even likened sending children to her state's schools to "throwing them in to the enemy's flames". Her hostility runs so deep that she educated her own offspring at home and at private Christian establishments.

Now Dunbar is on the brink of fulfilling a promise to change all that, or at least point Texas schools toward salvation. She is one of a clutch of Christian evangelists and social conservatives who have grasped control of the state's education board. This week they are expected to force through a new curriculum that is likely to shift what millions of American schoolchildren far beyond Texas learn about their history.

The board is to vote on a sweeping purge of alleged liberal bias in Texas school textbooks in favour of what Dunbar says really matters: a belief in America as a nation chosen by God as a beacon to the world, and free enterprise as the cornerstone of liberty and democracy.

"We are fighting for our children's education and our nation's future," Dunbar said. "In Texas we have certain statutory obligations to promote patriotism and to promote the free enterprise system. There seems to have been a move away from a patriotic ideology. There seems to be a denial that this was a nation founded under God. We had to go back and make some corrections."

Those corrections have prompted a blizzard of accusations of rewriting history and indoctrinating children by promoting rightwing views on religion, economics and guns while diminishing the science of evolution, the civil rights movement and the horrors of slavery.

Several changes include sidelining Thomas Jefferson, who favoured separation of church and state, while introducing a new focus on the "significant contributions" of pro-slavery Confederate leaders during the civil war.

The new curriculum asserts that "the right to keep and bear arms" is an important element of a democratic society. Study of Sir Isaac Newton is dropped in favour of examining scientific advances through military technology.

There is also a suggestion that the anti-communist witch-hunt by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s may have been justified.

The education board has dropped references to the slave trade in favour of calling it the more innocuous "Atlantic triangular trade", and recasts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as driven by Islamic fundamentalism.

"There is a battle for the soul of education," said Mavis Knight, a liberal member of the Texas education board. "They're trying to indoctrinate with American exceptionalism, the Christian founding of this country, the free enterprise system. There are strands where the free enterprise system fits appropriately but they have stretched the concept of the free enterprise system back to medieval times. The president of the Texas historical association could not find any documentation to support the stretching of the free enterprise system to ancient times but it made no difference."

The curriculum has alarmed liberals across the country in part because Texas buys millions of text books every year, giving it considerable sway over what publishers print. By some estimates, all but a handful of American states rely on text books written to meet the Texas curriculum. The California legislature is considering a bill that would bar them from being used in the state's schools.

In the past four years, Christian conservatives have won almost half the seats on the Texas education board and can rely on other Republicans for support on most issues. They previously tried to require science teachers to address the "strengths and weaknesses" in the theory of evolution – a move critics regard as a back door to teaching creationism – but failed. They have had more success in tackling history and social studies.

Dunbar backed amendments to the curriculum that portray the free enterprise system (there is no mention of capitalism, deemed to be a tainted word) as a cornerstone of liberty and argue that the government should have a minimal role in the economy.

One amendment requires that students be taught that economic prosperity requires "minimal government intrusion and taxation".

Underpinning the changes is a particular view of religion.

Dunbar was elected to the state education board on the back of a campaign in which she argued for the teaching of creationism – euphemistically known as intelligent design – in science classes.

Two years ago, she published a book, One Nation Under God, in which she argued that the United States was ultimately governed by the scriptures.

"The only accurate method of ascertaining the intent of the founding fathers at the time of our government's inception comes from a biblical worldview," she wrote. "We as a nation were intended by God to be a light set on a hill to serve as a beacon of hope and Christian charity to a lost and dying world."

On the education board, Dunbar backed changes that include teaching the role the "Jewish Ten Commandments" played in "political and legal ideas", and the study of the influence of Moses on the US constitution. Dunbar says these are important steps to overturning what she believes is the myth of a separation between church and state in the US.

"There's been this amorphous changing of how we look at religion and how we define religion within American history. One concern I have is that the viewpoint of the founding fathers is very clear. They were not against the promotion of religion. I think it is important to present a historically accurate viewpoint to students," she said.

On the face of it some of the changes are innocuous but critics say that closer scrutiny reveals a not-so-hidden agenda. History students are now to be required to study documents, such as the Mayflower Compact, which instil the idea of America being founded as a Christian fundamentalist nation.

Knight and others do not question that religion was an important force in American history but they fear that it is being used as a Trojan horse by evangelists to insert religious indoctrination into the school curriculum. They point to the wording of amendments such as that requiring students to "describe how religion and virtue contributed to the growth of representative government in the American colonies".

Among the advisers the board brought in to help rewrite the curriculum is David Barton, the leader of WallBuilders which seeks to promote religion in history. Barton has campaigned against the separation of church and state. He argues that income tax should be abolished because it contradicts the bible. Among his recommendations was that pupils should be taught that the declaration of independence establishes that the creator is at the heart of law, government and individual rights.

Conservatives have been accused of an assault on the history of civil rights. One curriculum amendment describes the civil rights movement as creating "unrealistic expectations of equal outcomes" among minorities. Another seeks to place Martin Luther King and the violent Black Panther movement as opposite sides of the same coin.

"We had a big discussion around that," said Knight, a former teacher. "It was an attempt to taint the civil rights movement. They did the same by almost equating George Wallace [the segregationist governor of Alabama in the mid-1960s] with the civil rights movement and the things Martin Luther King Jr was trying to accomplish, as if Wallace was standing up for white civil rights. That's how slick they are.

"They're very smooth at excluding the contributions of minorities into the curriculum. It is as if they want to render minority groups totally invisible. I think it's racist. I really do."

The blizzard of amendments has produced the occasional farce. Some figures have been sidelined because they are deemed to be socialist or un-American. One of them is a children's author, Bill Martin, who wrote a popular tale, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Martin was purged from the curriculum when he was confused with an author with a similar name but a different book, Ethical Marxism.

Discredited autism researcher's penalty is a shot in the arm for medical integrity


British medical authorities pulled the license of Andrew Wakefield, a doctor who stirred parental fears with unsubstantiated links between a common childhood vaccine and autism. Science is not on the side of those who frighten parents into not protecting their children.

THE long, sordid and destructive tale of Andrew Wakefield continues. The discredited British physician and autism researcher has been banned from practicing medicine in Britain.

One can hardly overstate the heartache and turmoil his unsubstantiated rants against the childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella have caused. His sloppy work and loose talk raised fears about a link between the vaccine and autism. Wakefield frightened legions of parents away from rudimentary protection against entirely preventable illnesses.

Wakefield fled his practice in Britain in 2004 and landed at an alternative-medicine research center in Texas. He was still under investigation back home, and the lengthy review ended in January. The General Medical Council announced its decision on Monday.

Wakefield thrived by exploitation of the raw emotions of parents with children diagnosed with autism, and by inflating the fears of millions more who were worried about what might happen.

Parents crave information on which to make informed decisions for their infants and toddlers as vaccination cycles begin. Wakefield's reckless behavior continues to haunt concerned families.

Science is not on the side of the doctor or those who mouth his theories.

Wakefield is most thoroughly repudiated by generations of healthy children and their families who have not suffered the pain, inconvenience and expense of 14 childhood diseases prevented by timely immunizations.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Creation v evolution


Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Two recent headlines in The Advertiser caught my attention. One (May 18), "Halt to religion in science classes on hold" and "Reputation for tolerance under threat" (May 22).

The first article reported a controversial plan to stop schools teaching creationism and intelligent design in science class, pending further consideration over the next few months.

The director of the Flinders Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century at Flinders University, Professor Martin Westwell, said by presenting creationism or intelligent design as an alternative to evolution "schools were stopping kids from being effective scientists or stopping kids from learning in effective ways".

One would have to assume the director/professor doesn't realise the articles in the Creation Ministries International Magazines are authored by scientists, archaeologists, botanists, ecologists — many who have degrees, doctorates or diplomas from world-recognised universities. Each article has end notes for checking on the authenticity of the information in the body of the article.

The article under the second headline was an editorial. This pleaded for a tolerance in society. It stated, "each person is entitled to a view and as a society we should encourage widespread debate about any issue".

That does seem a reasonable stance. My question is how does that attitude of tolerance add up to the attitude towards the possible banning of teaching creationism and intelligent design as an option to Darwin's theory of evolution in our schools?

It is not often people on southern Yorke Peninsula have the opportunity to hear firsthand from a speaker representing Creation Ministries International.

In light of the current debate I hope parents and teachers will avail themselves of the opportunity (see advert this issue).

Lorraine M. Klaffer, Minlaton

British Medical Council Bars Doctor Who Linked Vaccine With Autism


Published: May 24, 2010

LONDON — A doctor whose research and public statements caused widespread alarm that a common childhood vaccine could cause autism was banned on Monday from practicing medicine in his native Britain for ethical lapses, including conducting invasive medical procedures on children that they did not need.

The General Medical Council applied its most severe sanction against the doctor, Andrew Wakefield, 53, who abandoned his medical practice in Britain in 2004 as questions intensified about his research and set up a center to study childhood developmental disorders in Texas, despite not being licensed as a physician there.

In January, after the longest investigation in its history, the council found several instances of what it said was unprofessional conduct by Dr. Wakefield. It cited his taking blood samples for his study from children at his son's birthday party; he paid each child £5, about $7.20 today, and joked about it later. It also noted that part of the costs of Dr. Wakefield's research was paid by lawyers for parents seeking to sue vaccine makers for damages.

Dr. Wakefield left the Texas center in February, but continued to speak out against his treatment in Britain, as he did in interviews in New York on Monday, when he called the British decision to strike him off the medical register an effort to "discredit and silence" him. He said he would appeal the decision, which will take effect, unless suspended for legal reasons, within 28 days.

The disciplinary tribunal's action came after more than a decade of controversy over the links Dr. Wakefield and associates in Britain, as well as supporters among parents of some autistic children in Britain and the United States, have made between autism and a commonly used vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. The suggestion of a link caused use of the vaccine in Britain and elsewhere in the world to plummet, a development that critics of Dr. Wakefield said contributed to a sharp rise in measles cases in countries where the vaccine was in use.

Most scientific papers have failed to find any links between vaccines and autism.

The furor was touched off by a 1998 article in The Lancet, a British medical journal. The journal retracted the study in February after the medical council in London concluded in January that Dr. Wakefield had been dishonest and that he had violated ethical rules.

The council said he had shown "a callous disregard" for the suffering of children involved in his research. The ruling banning him from practicing medicine on Tuesday was a sequel to the January finding.

Dr. Surendra Kumar, the medical council's chairman, said that Dr. Wakefield had "brought the medical profession into disrepute" and that his behavior constituted "multiple separate instances of professional misconduct." In all, Dr. Wakefield was found guilty of more than 30 charges.

"The panel concluded," Dr. Kumar said, "that it is the only sanction that is appropriate to protect patients and is in the wider public interest, including the maintenance of public trust and confidence in the profession." He said the sanction was "proportionate to the serious and wide-ranging findings made against him."

The council also barred from practice one of Dr. Wakefield's associates, Dr. John Walker-Smith, 73, who had been found guilty of professional misconduct and retired from medicine 10 years ago. A second associate, Dr. Simon Murch, was found not guilty of professional misconduct and allowed to continue practicing.

Dr. Wakefield resigned in February from his position as a staff researcher at Thoughtful House, an alternative medicine clinic in Austin, Tex. A spokeswoman for the clinic said she did not know where Dr. Wakefield worked now.

A 2007 annual report for the clinic has a picture of Dr. Wakefield looking into microscope with a caption that reads: "Where would we be without Dr. Wakefield and your entire team? Thank you for your courageous efforts in swimming against the tide. Without you we would still be hearing, 'There is nothing we can do.' Because of you we know the hope is great and the progress is attainable."

In New York on Monday, Dr. Wakefield rejected the medical council's findings. In an interview with the "Today" show on NBC, he described the ban on his practicing as "a little bump in the road" and said the council's decision had been predetermined "from the outset." He also said he would continue his research into the link between vaccines and autism.

"These parents are not going away," he said. "The children are not going away. And I am most certainly not going away."

Gardiner Harris contributed reporting from Washington.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Is Intelligent Design Bad Theology? A Response to Vernon's "Review" of Signature in the Cell


Over the years, ID proponents have spent much of their time developing the theoretical tools for inferring design and developing the empirical case for design in fields such as cosmology, astronomy, origin of life studies, and molecular biology. In contrast, many critics have spent their time attacking the supposed theology behind ID.

In the last few weeks, The Guardian (in the UK) has been publishing responses to the following question: "Is Intelligent Design Bad Theology?" Philosophers Michael Ruse and Stephen Fuller have weighed in on the question. Recently, Mark Vernon responded to the question by "reviewing" Stephen Meyer's book, Signature in the Cell. Based on his interpretation of Meyer's argument, Vernon concludes that ID is "bad science, bad theology, and blasphemy." That puts it strongly. Unfortunately, Vernon's strong language is not supported by strong arguments.

Surprisingly, Vernon's brief summary of Meyer's argument is actually pretty good; but then he quickly goes off the rails. His complaint, initially, is that Meyer's argument leads to the conclusion that ID is the best explanation for the origin of life to date; but, "in truth, no one really knows what life is, let alone how it arose. The work in the last half century or so on DNA has only deepened the problem – vastly deepened it."

The obvious response is, So what? As Meyer argues in his book, there is far more to life than the little bit we know at the moment. Meyer argues that there is far more information in a cell, for instance, than is present in the coding regions of DNA. But Meyer's argument is based squarely on what we do know about life and its informational properties, not on what we don't know. Vernon seems to think that if we don't know everything about life, any argument based on what we do know will be an argument from ignorance. This is bizarre. Such curious "reasoning," if applied consistently, would mean we could never make arguments or draw conclusions about anything, since there would always be something we don't know. The only thing we could do is remain silent. Frankly, I don't think Vernon means what he says here. If he did, he would be giving the same advice to everyone, and not just to ID proponents.

As it is, everyone is in the same boat. Good arguments will be based on what we know at the moment. And that's exactly what Steve Meyer does in Signature in the Cell.

"Religious" Explanations

Building on the argument described above, Vernon then proceeds to his theological complaint. Although his critique is directed officially to Signature in the Cell, it becomes clear that he intends his critique to apply to ID more generally. An early sign that his critique will misfire is his reference to "Newton's view of the universe" as "a deistic belief in a divine architect." Only problem: Newton was not a deist. Deism is the view that God starts the world on its course and then doesn't interact any more with it. Newton, in contrast, thought God not only set up the world at the beginning, but also constantly upheld and interacted with it in a variety of ways. He was a harsh critic of Cartesians who seemed to consign God a place only at the cosmic beginning. Whatever one makes of Newton's specific views, they were a far cry from deism.

Vernon faults ID with similar inaccuracy for "assuming that God could be a scientific explanation at all. To do so has long been observed to be ridiculous."

Unfortunately, he doesn't cite any sources from the ID literature to substantiate his characterization of ID. That's hardly surprising, since ID proponents have explained over and over and over again that ID per se isn't committed to a specific mode of divine causality. ID is about detecting the effects of intelligent agency within nature (divine or otherwise). Either there is evidence for such effects within nature, or there is not. Detecting the effects of design is different from specifying how the design is implemented, or by whom.

Apparently oblivious to these distinctions, Vernon tries to seal ID off in a "religious" compartment. "Belief and science are two different kinds of explanation, one moral, the other material," he explains. "Explanations based on 'belief' have to do with morals, not science." To insert one type of explanation in place of the other, according to Vernon, is to make a category mistake.

Now let's set aside the fact that he's confusing an argument for agency in explaining something in nature with religious belief, and just focus on what he says about the nature of religious belief. It's clearly false. Even the most superficial student of religion knows that various religions, such as Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, intend to explain all sorts of things about the world. No religion is obligated to restrict its explanations to morality, and few have done so. So as a description of what real religions actually do, Vernon's assertion is baseless.


Based on his analysis of "scientific" and "religious" explanations, Vernon concludes that ID is bad theology. Indeed, he claims that it's blasphemy, because it purportedly invokes God to explain something in the world:

God is something else again, which Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian, explored in the notion that creation is "out of nothing". The "ex nihilo" is not supposed to be a demonstration of God as a scientific whizz-kid, so amazing that he doesn't even need matter to make the cosmos. Rather, it's to say that the universe was created with no instrumental cause. It is the original free lunch, offered purely out of God's love. You can argue about whether you'd have picked what's on the menu. But to insert God into the causal chain is a category mistake and, in fact, technically a blasphemy. It implies that God is one more thing along with all the other things in the universe. You're not dealing with divinity there, but an idol.

So ID proponents are guilty of both blasphemy and idolatry.

What to say? Well, it's clear that Vernon is confusing a cartoonish stereotype of ID for the real thing. No ID theorist has ever said: "Insert God here." ID theorists offer detailed arguments for why intelligent agency is the best explanation for various features of the natural world—or of the natural world itself. For instance, Steve Meyer goes into extraordinary detail in Signature in the Cell explaining why chance, mere self-organization, or chance plus a blind selection mechanism are inadequate to explain biological information. He also provides detailed positive arguments for why we should attribute such information to intelligent design. His argument has clear theological implications, but it doesn't rest on narrow theological premises. He simply asks that intelligent design be considered a possible explanation.

But let's set the details about ID aside and consider Vernon's theological assertion on its own terms.

Let's imagine someone who does explicitly invoke God in explaining some feature of nature, someone like Thomas Aquinas. Does "inserting God into the [natural] causal chain" commit "a category mistake" and make one guilty of "blasphemy"? Would it imply that "God is one more thing along with all the other things in the universe"? Specifically, would such a claim contradict a fundamental principle of Christian theology? No, of course it wouldn't.

Christianity has traditionally taught that God is omnipotent, free and sovereign over his creation. God is qualitatively more powerful than mere human beings. He can do far more than human beings, not less. Since human beings, despite our limitations, can build 747s, there's nothing preventing God from doing the same (though we have no reason to think he has done so).

Like Michael Tkacz, to whom I responded earlier, Vernon is trying to use the doctrine of creation ex nihilo as a catch-all, to suggest that the doctrine somehow bars God from acting in other ways within the universe. There's no basis whatsoever for this move in Christian theology. It's invented from whole cloth. The fact that God created the universe ex nihilo doesn't mean that that's his only way of acting. The only justification I can think of for limiting God's freedom to act within the created order would be to square Christian theology with naturalism. But then it would cease to be Christian theology.

In reality, Christianity is firmly committed to God doing all sorts of things within the created order. According to Christian theology (which is relevant since Vernon appeals to Thomas Aquinas), God creates the world from nothing, he raises people from the dead, he became incarnate as a human being, he caused Mary to become pregnant without the benefit of a human male, and so forth. If the latter claim is true, then the proper explanation for Mary becoming pregnant is the direct causality of God within the natural order.

Every educated Westerner, whether believer or unbeliever, knows perfectly well that Christians believe that God is both the creator of everything that is, and that he acts within nature. In fact, it's hard to think of a less controversial claim. Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury both know this. So it's just silly for Vernon to assert that invoking God as a cause within nature is "blasphemous."

What about his assertion that invoking divine causality within nature somehow makes God "one more thing along with other things in the universe"?

Unfortunately, this is just an assertion. Vernon doesn't provide even a pretense of an argument. And it's hard to think of any argument in its favor. If God is free and sovereign over his creation, then he can do what he wants to do. He's under no obligation to conform to Mark Vernon's rules of tidiness and propriety. If he wants to act directly within the created order for his own purposes, he can certainly do that. And in so doing, God doesn't become "one more thing along with all the other things in the universe." He continues to be God. Vernon is confusing cause with effect. God may act directly in the created order, and the effect of his action would become part of that order. But that doesn't mean that God therefore becomes merely one more member of the universe.

Of course, the claim that God acts directly in the created order might seem blasphemous to a theology that has fully capitulated to naturalism, such as the deism that Vernon falsely attributes to Newton. Vernon is free to defend such a theology, and to define everyone who claims that God can act within nature as a blasphemer. But in that case, he should explain that according to his view of God, every traditional theist on the planet is guilty of blasphemy. And he should distinguish such anti-deistic "blasphemy" from ID, which doesn't entail a specific mode of divine causality.

Posted by Jay Richards on May 20, 2010 8:45 AM | Permalink