NTS LogoSkeptical News for 7 June 2010

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Monday, June 07, 2010

Scientists making creationists cry


Category: Creationism
Posted on: June 7, 2010 1:33 AM, by PZ Myers

The Discovery Institute is getting so politely eviscerated by a couple of people right now — you ought to savor the destruction.

Richard Sternberg, the wanna-be martyr of the Smithsonian Institution, made a stupid mathematical mistake in explaining alternatively splicing, and then, after it was explained to him, did it a second time, revealing that it wasn't just an unfortunate slip, but a complete failure to grasp the basic concept. Even that wouldn't be so bad, except that Sternberg has been yammering away about how alternative splicing represents a serious problem for evolution.

Steve Matheson continues his deconstruction of the DI's poor performance in a recent debate. The creationists are constantly cheesed off about the whole idea of junk DNA, that there are great stretches of sequence that have no specific functional role, and seize upon every little example of non-coding DNA shown to have an effect on the phenotype to claim that all of it does. They don't understand junk DNA. Again, it's embarrassing that they even strain at this topic when they are so clueless.

My objection to Meyer's references to introns and "junk DNA" is more than just a quibble about the molecular biology of introns. I've explained before why I find the whole "junk DNA" mantra to be utterly duplicitous, and I referenced my previous writing in the critique of Meyer. The basic story told by DI propagandists and other creationists is that non-coding DNA was ignored for decades, during which it was thought to be completely functionless (due to "Darwinist" ideas), only to be dramatically revealed as centrally important to life. That story is false. The real story is more interesting and complex (of course) and has been explained in detail several times.

Really, T. Ryan Gregory's short and sweet post on the history of the concept is essential reading. If only the ID creationists would read it…

And finally, Matheson has a far too charitable letter to Stephen Meyer. He assumes that Meyer is a smart guy, honestly interested in science, who has gotten sucked into the inbred and self-deluding folly of creationism, urging him to get out and talk to actual scientists, where he'd learn what they really think, rather than these fallacious myths creationists tell themselves. It's a nice idea, but I think the premise is incorrect. Meyer is a creationist first, who has been trying to learn little bits of science that he can use to rationalize his preconceptions.

It's still a very nice letter, though, and a scathing denunciation of the Discovery Institute. They'll ignore it, I'm sure, except to move Matheson a few notches higher on their list of enemies.

Does the Templeton Foundation Promote Science, or Corrupt It?


A Presbyterian from small-town Tennessee, the late John Templeton went on to become one of the world's great financiers. In the 1980's he started an eponymous foundation, whose central mission was to re-inject religiosity into science. In an investigative piece in the current issue of The Nation magazine (hat tip Andrew Sullivan), Nathan Schneider worries about how successful the Templeton Foundation has become at fulfilling that goal, especially as its endowment is set to swell to $2.5 billion once John Templeton's estate is settled -- he died in 2008 -- and his son, Jack, moves to put his stamp on the organization.

"The main purpose of the John Templeton Foundation is to encourage the top 1/10 of 1 percent of people and thereby encourage all people to think that progress in spiritual information is possible, desirable, can be done and will be done," John Templeton wrote in 1995. To that end, the foundation "dispenses about $70 million in grants annually, the bulk of which goes to programs in the religion-and-science orbit, from an eight-year, $9.8 million grant to Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health to $25,000 for a 2007 conference on Carl Linnaeus and religion in Sweden," Schneider writes.

In the worlds of academics and science, money drives inquiry. To take just one example, prior to the injection of Templeton's money, there were barely a handful of medical school programs that offered courses on religion. Now, "three-quarters of US medical schools have brought spirituality into their curriculums," Schneider reports. While some scientists maintain that Templeton money comes with no strings attached, others worry about the corrupting force of taking money from a foundation that wants to bridge a gap between religion and science that many scientists (and non-scientists, too) believe ought to be unbridgeable.

The foundation, too, has trouble negotiating this divide. Wanting to be taken seriously for its scientific endeavors, it's disavowed the movement to re-inject creationism into the classroom. Still, it has funded intelligent-design advocates in the past. And now that Jack Templeton is in charge, there's the worry that the foundation, which already donates to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, will steer its money toward conservative political causes. (On his own, Jack Templeton has given money to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and to groups opposed to gay marriage.)

But as long as money is flowing, many scientists are unlikely to complain. The foundation increases the money that comes with its top honor, the Templeton Prize, to ensure it out-pays the more prestigious Nobel, and winners fit a certain pattern: It goes "usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion," writes zoologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion.

God, Science and Philanthropy


Nathan Schneider
June 3, 2010 | This article appeared in the June 21, 2010 edition of The Nation.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

For decades, sociologist Margaret Poloma struggled against the tone-deafness to spirituality that rules her discipline; she wanted to study prayer, to measure divine love, to "see God as an actor." In the meantime, having held a tenured post at the University of Akron since 1970, she built a respectable career with a long list of journal articles and books to her name. She became an authority on Pentecostalism and on the family lives of modern women. But all along, Poloma says, "I felt like I was swimming alone upstream."

That changed in the early 1990s, when she found an ally in David Larson, a psychiatrist who longed to integrate religion into the practice of medicine. He was in the process of founding the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR); what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is to medicine writ large, the NIHR would be for "the forgotten factor" of faith. In 1995 Larson brought Poloma to a conference organized by his funder: the John Templeton Foundation, established by the eponymous investor who died in July 2008 at 95. "That conference was a magical experience for me," Poloma remembers. It was there that she met Stephen Post, a bioethicist who would later create the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love with Templeton money. With Post she began receiving grants from the foundation. By 2007 she was co-director of the Flame of Love Project, administering $2.3 million from Templeton to establish "a new interdisciplinary science of Godly Love," with a focus on the Pentecostal tradition.

Other scholars aren't quite sure what the "science of Godly Love" means, exactly. Anthea Butler, a historian of Pentecostalism at the University of Pennsylvania, remembers that when Poloma's Flame of Love request for proposals appeared, "nobody in the field could figure out what the hell she was talking about." Many applied anyway. "She went from being an outsider to someone with tons of money who can set the terms of discussion," says Butler.

"This grant is something I would never have dreamed of," Poloma told me. "I feel like I'm soaring like an eagle." For her, all gratitude is due to the funder. "Where but Templeton would you find that kind of dialogue going on?"

Nowhere—and that's what has some people so concerned. The kind of research Poloma and her colleagues propose, however empirical and peer-reviewed, seems to come as an affront to centuries of purported progress in disentangling natural science from supernatural belief. Depending on whom you ask, Templeton represents either the hijacking of nothing less than the meaning of life, or the restoration of its luster, which has been dulled by politics and cynicism.

Poloma's story repeats itself throughout the cluster of academic fields that the Templeton Foundation has chosen to flush with money. This past January $4.4 million went to a project on free will, headed by philosopher Alfred Mele at Florida State University. In a particularly arresting case, between 2006 and 2009 MIT physicist Max Tegmark received $8.8 million to set up the Foundational Questions Institute (with the dashing acronym FQXi), which funds first-rate scientists to explore basic problems about time, space and the origin of the universe. Its conferences have been "a coming-out-of-the-closet experience," says Tegmark. "Lots of people reconnect with the real reasons they started doing science in the first place."

Templeton has a history of seeding fields of study almost from scratch. After the foundation's initiative for research on forgiveness began in 1997, the number of psychology journal articles on the subject went from fewer than fifty per year to more than 100 in 2000 and nearly 250 in 2008. When Templeton first financed Larson's NIHR in the early 1990s, the number of medical schools with courses on religion could be counted on one latex glove. Now, according to Dr. Christina Puchalski of the Templeton-funded George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, three-quarters of US medical schools have brought spirituality into their curriculums.

What connects, say, unlimited love with string theory? According to the foundation, they are among life's "Big Questions," the exploration of which constitutes its mission. Templeton money supports other causes, like promoting virtue, encouraging gifted youth and fostering free enterprise, but its core concerns are more cosmic: "Does the universe have a purpose?" "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" "Does evolution explain human nature?" As the advance of knowledge becomes ever more specialized and remote, these questions seem as refreshing as they are intractable; the foundation wants them to be our culture's uniting, overriding focus. For those who work on matters of spirituality and science today, Templeton is around every turn, active in disciplines from biology and cosmology to philosophy and theology. Many leading scholars speak of it with a tone of caution; some who have not applied for grants expect to do so in the future, while a few have taken a principled stand against doing so.

Like debates about religion broadly, debates about Templeton often get mapped onto the culture wars in black and white, or red and blue. It doesn't help that the foundation is a longstanding donor to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. And while its founder preferred eternal questions to worldly politics, the son who has succeeded him, John Templeton Jr.—Jack—is a conservative Evangelical who spends his personal time and money opposing gay marriage and defending the Iraq War. Since his father's death, concerns have swirled among the foundation's grantees and critics alike that Jack Templeton will steer the foundation even further rightward and, perhaps, even further from respectable science.

The stakes are high. The Templeton Foundation holds assets valued at around $1 billion, a sum that will likely swell to $2.5 billion in the years to come as John Templeton Sr.'s estate is settled. That would put it squarely among the richest twenty-five foundations in the country, somewhere between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Open Society Institute. The foundation dispenses about $70 million in grants annually, the bulk of which goes to programs in the religion-and-science orbit, from an eight-year, $9.8 million grant to Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health to $25,000 for a 2007 conference on Carl Linnaeus and religion in Sweden. For the often-fledgling, cash-strapped areas it funds, nothing else can compete.

But what makes the foundation more influential than its deep pockets is the combination of elite research and broad dissemination. As a memo signed by John Templeton in 1995 put it, "The main purpose of the John Templeton Foundation is to encourage the top 1/10 of 1% of people and thereby encourage all people to think that progress in spiritual information is possible, desirable, can be done and will be done." The "top 1/10 of 1%" part happens in projects like the Humble Approach Initiative, a series of high-level interdisciplinary seminars that since 1998 have covered topics such as "Universe or Multiverse?" and "Faith, Rationality, and the Passions." At each step, the foundation tries to keep a wider audience abreast. Along with advanced research, it funds public essay contests and lectures. A series of periodicals, including In Character and Science & Spirit, have tried to build readerships around Templeton's favorite topics—the former was even, for a time, sent to every member of Congress. The foundation supports the annual World Science Festival in New York and takes out lavish ads in magazines and newspapers to showcase handpicked intellectuals answering Big Questions about God, science and markets.

The founder's flagship program, though, is the Templeton Prize, usually handed out each year by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. The first went to Mother Teresa in 1973; this year's laureate is biologist and former Catholic priest Francisco Ayala. Winners have run the gamut from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to physicist Freeman Dyson. The award's value is consciously pegged to be bigger than that of the Nobel Prize.

The zoologist and author Richard Dawkins quipped in his 2006 book The God Delusion that the Templeton Prize goes "usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion." He and others among the so-called New Atheists have been the foundation's most strident critics lately; they believe Templeton is corrupting science by trying to inject it with religious dogma and, in turn, misrepresent science to the public. The advance of science steamrolls over religion, they say, and Templeton is deluding people into thinking otherwise.

These are no minor charges. Recent years have witnessed political and religious campaigns to both undermine and co-opt scientific authority on matters ranging from climate change to sex education to evolution. Organizations like Answers in Genesis, which advocates for young-earth creationism, and the Discovery Institute, which orchestrates the intelligent-design movement, have been trying to squeeze creationism into public school science classes. Within this environment, Templeton has struggled to maintain a delicate balance between alarmed scientists on one side and its mission to bring religion into conversation with science on the other.

In the past the foundation has funded book projects related to intelligent design by theorists William Dembski and Guillermo Gonzalez, who were affiliated with the Discovery Institute when they received Templeton grant money. By then, though, Templeton had already begun funding a program that opposes creationism at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "We do not believe that the science underpinning the intelligent-design movement is sound," wrote one foundation official in a 2007 letter to the Los Angeles Times. Templeton has since taken pains to promote evolutionary theory among Christians, such as through the BioLogos Foundation, which was headed by geneticist Francis Collins until President Obama appointed him director of NIH. Still, Templeton continues to find itself in murky waters; in May, for instance, it supported a conference celebrating the retirement of the eminent philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who also happens to have been a sometime ally of intelligent design.

Indeed, the larger the foundation becomes, the harder it is to pin down. "They've become fuzzier and fuzzier," says California Institute of Technology astronomer Sean Carroll, one of Templeton's more outspoken critics. Even Jeffrey Schloss, a Templeton trustee who is part of the new $10 million grant project on evolutionary biology based at Harvard, admits that without the foundation "there'd be a bit less accommodationist fluff that proposes integration [between religion and science] at the expense of rigor."

Nonreligious scientists who accept Templeton grants—like biologist David Sloan Wilson and psychologist Jonathan Haidt—insist that the money comes without strings attached. "No coercion, no corruption," Haidt says. But Nobel Prize–winning chemist Harry Kroto won't accept that. "They are involved in an exercise that endangers the fundamental credibility of the scientific community," he contends. Kroto has taken to organized resistance; in 2007, when the Royal Society of London considered accepting Templeton money for one of its programs, he was among eleven fellows, five of them Nobel laureates, who successfully lobbied against the plan. Since a Templeton lecture series in 2004, the Royal Society hasn't worked with the foundation, though some fellows and its president, astrophysicist Martin Rees, have done so individually.

Now Dawkins and Kroto, with eight other advisory board members of Project Reason, founded by New Atheist author Sam Harris in 2007 to promote secularism, are at work on another offensive. Project Reason hired British science journalist Sunny Bains to investigate Templeton and build a case against it. Her unpublished findings include evidence of pervasive cronyism: more than half of the past dozen Templeton Prize winners were connected to the foundation before their win, and board members do well obtaining grant money and speaking gigs. Bains also argues that the true atheistic tendencies of leading scientists were misrepresented in the foundation's Big Questions advertisements. Templeton's mission, Bains concludes, is to promote religion, and its overtures to science are an insidious trick with the purpose of sneaking in God.

Though some critics refuse to go near anything associated with Templeton, others are forced by its ubiquity to make compromises. Sean Carroll, for one, will work only on scientific projects funded by Templeton (such as the FQXi) that aren't solely under the foundation's banner. "It represents a serious ethical dilemma," says A.C. Grayling, a British philosopher and former columnist for New Scientist magazine; he accuses the foundation of "borrowing respectability from science for religion."

These critiques have taken a toll on the Templeton brand. "I don't think Templeton money is dishonorable, and I have taken it myself," says Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University. But Ruse expresses relief that his latest book wasn't funded by any Templeton grants. "The whole business has become so politicized and open to attack by the New Atheists—they would claim that I am just a paid spokesman."

In response to its critics, the foundation cites the careful peer review process its projects go through and the integrity of the leading institutions with which it partners. "The goal is to insist that the scholarship that is done in theology and philosophy is scientifically informed, and that the research done on the scientific side is conceptually rigorous and clear," explains Michael Murray, a Templeton Foundation vice president. In many cases these protocols and elite affiliations are enough to persuade eminent scientists, like Rees and Carroll, to put aside their misgivings and participate in Templeton projects.

Still, few Templeton grantees are fully aware of the breadth of the foundation's activities, much less the quixotic vision of its founder, John Templeton—or, as friends of the foundation have called him since he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987, "Sir John."

In the foundation's boardroom, no one can hide from Sir John's gaze. His bust is mounted above the far end of a long meeting table, and his portrait hangs on a long wall. The offices are in one of a cluster of new towers scattered among industrial relics and hillside homes in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, fourteen miles up the Schuylkill River from downtown Philadelphia. There, away from the distractions of big-city political and intellectual life, John Templeton's legacy is meant to carry itself out, unadulterated. As the foundation grew larger, it became increasingly concerned that it not stray from the mission he gave it. By the time he died, an elaborate audit system had been put in place to ensure that his wishes would forever be its holy writ.

Templeton's own spirituality was eclectic. Though a lifelong Presbyterian, he imbibed the wisdom of religions both Eastern and Western, ranging from his friend Norman Vincent Peale, the prophet of the organization man, to Ramakrishna. Early on, his mother exposed him to the Unity School of Christianity, a turn-of-the-century movement that emphasized positive thinking and healing through prayer. The Unity School considered itself progressive and even, loosely speaking, scientific: a practical application of Christianity to modern life.

Out of his humble origins in small-town Tennessee, Templeton built a career as one of the great architects of globalization—"the dean of global investing," Forbes once dubbed him. As he grew older, though, his wealth ever multiplying, Templeton began turning his attention away from business. "All my life I was trying to help people get wealthy, and with a little success. But I never noticed it made them any happier," he told Charlie Rose in a 1997 interview. "Real wealth is not in money; it's in spiritual growth."

When Templeton created his foundation in the mid-'80s, conventional wisdom still largely held that religion would retreat as science secularized the world. But in Templeton's eyes, this made religion the perfect investment. "To get a bargain price," he would say, "you've got to look for where the public is most frightened and pessimistic." Religion's potential value far exceeded the asking price; a lot could be done with a little. Templeton would rhapsodize about science's amazing progress in virtually every area of knowledge over the past century—except in spirituality, which he believed had remained stagnant. "It is no small wonder, then," Templeton wrote in his manifesto, The Humble Approach, "that some people believe religion is gradually becoming obsolete." The answer he envisioned wasn't simply a louder, timelier enunciation of familiar doctrines but a new posture he called "humility theology," an outlook that emphasizes how little is known about the divine and how much believers need to question and test their beliefs, as scientists do. Templeton thought that science could get religions out of their rut.

Through his mostly self-published writings, Templeton developed an idiosyncratic vocabulary, speaking of the search for "spiritual information" and of God as "Unlimited Creative Spirit." But many of Templeton's books are less properly theological than they are well-meaning self-help texts with a metaphysical bent. Uneasy with conventional meanings for "God" and "religion," he speculated in a 1990 document that "maybe God is providing new revelations in ways which go beyond any religion." Concerning atheism, Templeton seems to have thought that if religion were more sophisticated, the line between belief and unbelief might disappear. He once mused, "Could even atheists, who deny the reality of a personal God, begin to worship fundamental reality or unlimited mind or unlimited love?"

At worst, Templeton could be called heterodox and naïve; at best, his was a mind more open than most, reflective of the most inventive and combinatorial strains of American religious thought, eager to radically reinterpret ancient wisdom and bring it up to speed with some version from the present.

In 1996 Charles Harper, a planetary scientist from Harvard and NASA with a graduate education in cosmology and theology from Oxford, joined the foundation as its executive director. A forceful—and by many accounts difficult—personality with a visionary streak, Harper shaped John Templeton's dream into a package of programs that could begin to look credible to the scientific community.

A decade later, phrases that Templeton used, like "spiritual realities," "progress in religion" and even the foundation's official motto, "How little we know, how eager to learn," were hiding behind a more presentable formula: "Supporting science, investing in the Big Questions." By no means, though, was the spiritual sidelined under Harper's leadership. "Rigorous, advanced research in science in certain areas," he wrote me, "can be supported and engaged as a form of theologically-
significant research adventure." Harper shared with his boss the hope of making questions of faith part of the scientific conversation, and for years they funded innovative ways of doing so.

But in May 2009, less than a year after Templeton's death, Harper was fired. Those at the foundation are reluctant to explain why; Harvard astronomer and longtime advisory board member Owen Gingerich attributes it to "a difference of opinion about who could best understand Sir John's intentions" between Harper and Jack Templeton. Above all, "there was a clash of personalities."

Jack Templeton is little like his father. While the elder Templeton's writings venture into the poetic and speculative, his son's read like a medical report. Jack displays admirable filial loyalty, evident most of all in his decades-long leadership of the foundation under his father's guidance; he has been president since it began, serving full time since he left a successful pediatric surgery practice in 1995. His memoir begins and ends with lessons his father taught him and is suffused by, as he put it, "a struggle to find acceptance and approval in my father's eyes."

Only now, though, are we beginning to learn how that struggle will express itself in his father's absence. With Harper gone, and his replacement yet to be announced, there is a vacuum at the top. It is, says physicist and trustee Paul Davies, "an anxious time." What seems to have people there most on edge right now, though, is not so much science as politics. In this respect too, the younger Templeton differs in kind from his father. He has financed a right-wing organization of his own, Let Freedom Ring, which once promoted the "Templeton Curve," a graph he designed to advocate privatizing Social Security. Now Let Freedom Ring lends support to the Tea Party movement. Jack Templeton's money has also gone to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and to ads by the neoconservative group Freedom's Watch. In 2008 he and his wife gave more than $1 million to support California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.

According to his lifelong friend Jay Norwalk, Templeton "is exceedingly scrupulous about keeping his personal life separate from the foundation." By most accounts, this has been the case. Physicist Karl Giberson, a self-described liberal who has been a close collaborator on various foundation projects, adds, "To me, Jack Templeton represents the way you want conservatives to be." (Jack Templeton declined requests for an interview, and the foundation's chief external affairs officer, Gary Rosen, a former editor at Commentary, instructed foundation leadership to conduct interviews with The Nation only in writing.)

"Conservative," though, hardly encompasses what the Templeton Foundation is about. The founder's relationship to the notion was especially paradoxical; in The Humble Approach, Templeton writes, "Rarely does a conservative become a hero of history." Although Templeton could be nostalgic, harking back to time-tested values and homespun sayings, he wanted above all to move the world forward, not hold it back. Yet he was, in political parlance, a conservative: a voting (and donating) small-government, probusiness Republican. More George H.W. than Dubya, his values bear little resemblance to the sex-centered prohibitions of today's religious right. His foundation's charter speaks instead of "love," "forgiveness," "generosity," "creativity," "thrift" and "awe."

John Templeton once told Harper that he read only the news in the paper, never the editorials; the fray of partisanship and policy didn't interest him. He wanted to keep his foundation away from party politics, just as he kept its offices away from downtown philanthropic circles. He loved undertakings, like a mission to the moon or a mutual fund, that would unite people around a common transcendent purpose.

In the minds of some, he succeeded. Conservative Christian columnist and blogger Rod Dreher, upon beginning his new job as the foundation's director of publications at the start of this year, had a revelation. "I didn't realize how burned out with and depressed by politics I had become," he wrote me. Working at the Templeton Foundation, he believes, gave him a chance to grow in a way that political editorializing would never allow. "I've become ever more convinced that the more important questions facing us are cultural, not political," Dreher explains.

Templeton has long maintained relationships with a network of right-wing organizations that share its interest in open markets, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, received more than $1 million between 2005 and 2008, and the Cato Institute, more than $200,000 in the same period. Templeton's charter stipulates that the chief executives of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty are entitled to be members of the foundation, and both have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Templeton grants in recent years. Those organizations also receive contributions from Big Oil and take part in the campaign to distort the scientific consensus on global warming.

Exceptions to the rightward trend abound: psychologist and Templeton trustee David Myers penned What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage; just last year the foundation treated the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton to a Templeton Book Forum event at the Harvard Club in New York—the list goes on. Grants to conservative think tanks are a comparatively minor part of the foundation's overall giving, but they send a strong signal nonetheless. "There is no getting around the fact," declared a glowing 2007 National Review article, "that it [Templeton] has quickly become a major force in conservative philanthropy."

This is even more the case today. Jack Templeton announced, in the 2008 Capabilities Report, a "fresh endeavor" on free enterprise, the area of the foundation's work closest to his own predilections. Mauro De Lorenzo, hired as a vice president to lead the initiative, still retains a post at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which Templeton has also funded. When I asked him about the foundation's think tank portfolio, De Lorenzo said, "We would be delighted to fund work at so-called left-of-center think tanks, so long as it meets the donor intent." That they haven't funded such organizations yet, he continued, is just a matter of "not knowing each other."

There is another glaring omission in Templeton's funding record: the foundation has yet to break ground on one of the six principal causes that John Templeton stipulated—education about voluntary family planning. Gary Rosen explains that this program "is still in development" though it has been in the charter for more than a decade. It is also an area where the foundation's mission could come into tension with its political and religious allies.

Treading carefully over such theologically fraught ground is a practice that goes back to the founder. His writings might have been iconoclastic, but his deeds were mainly establishmentarian, keeping him in good standing with the religious powers that be. Templeton money has supported a wide range of pious causes, from the American Bible Society to awards for "wholesome" filmmaking (including, controversially, The Passion of the Christ). Templeton Prizes have gone to evangelists Billy Graham and Bill Bright, as well as Watergate conspirator turned Evangelical activist Charles Colson and AEI theologian Michael Novak.

John Templeton built a place where the right's hardened partisans, like Dreher and Rosen, can settle down and turn to life's real Big Questions, in peace, for all mankind. But the foundation meanwhile has associated itself with political and religious forces that cause it to be perceived as threatening the integrity of science and protecting the religious status quo. This is quite the reverse of the founder's most alluring hope: a spirituality finally worthy of our scientific achievements. As a result of such alliances, though, the foundation is also better positioned than most to foster a conservatism—and a culture generally—that holds the old habits of religions and business responsible to good evidence, while helping scientists better speak to people's deepest concerns. On issues that range from climatology to stem cells, science has too often taken a back seat to the whims of politics, and Templeton's peculiar vision offers a welcome antidote to that. To live up to this calling, Big Questions are one thing; but the foundation will have to stand up for tough answers, too, as it did when announcing the findings of a major study that intercessory prayer doesn't improve medical outcomes, or when rebuking intelligent design.

John Templeton did want to hijack the meaning of life; he meant to remake the human race's moral and cosmic toolbox in some scientific revolution of the spirit. His money has given new life to ancient questions that matter to all of us. But there is also an inescapable curiosity—or for some, like Margaret Poloma, good luck—in the idea that how we think about the most lofty things has become so much at the mercy of an eccentric investor's later-life dreams.

Art(ful) History in Texas


June 3, 2010

Looking at the world through the filmy gauze of a Thomas Kinkade portrait.
By Lauri Lebo

Lauri Lebo is the author of The Devil in Dover: Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, a book about the 2005 First Amendment trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover in which intelligent design was ruled creationism.

Don McLeroy is pleased. For the past two years, the Texas Board of Education member has been leading efforts to revamp the state's public education curricula. Late last month, the board finished the job with a 9-5 vote to rewrite the social studies standards, presenting students with a radically conservative version of history.

McLeroy says the more than 200 revisions were only made in order to add balance to what was a liberal presentation of history. However, historians, academics and civil liberties experts have decried the changes, accusing the board of rewriting history and presenting an inaccurate view of America, including the notion that this nation was based on Christian principles and that the founding fathers didn't intend for there to be separation of church and state.

The new standards serve as publishing guidelines for writers of textbooks and Texas is the second largest bulk purchaser of textbooks in the country. But how far publishers will go to sell books in such a lucrative market is a matter of debate. Some writers have argued that the board has gone too far and no reputable publishing house will present history in the context that the new standards demand.

But in an interview this week, McLeroy indicated that the battle over textbooks is only one part of the conservative agenda.

The 'supplementary' strategy

McLeroy is particularly pleased about a new provision that will allow the board to adopt supplemental materials since last week the board voted to delay indefinitely the purchase of new science textbooks which would include the changes McLeroy has lobbied for. Because new science textbooks are estimated to cost $350 million, the board opted to bridge the gap between the old and the new science standards with supplemental materials. The board will review and pick the materials next spring.

Using supplemental materials may be something of a creationist cloak and dagger. In the past several years, recommendations that supplemental materials be introduced in public school science classrooms have been part of anti-evolution bills in states across the country as a way to sneak creationist literature into the curriculum.

Louisiana has been at the forefront of the supplemental materials battle since 2008 and lawmakers there have made it possible for school districts to sidestep any legitimate review process in adopting material.

In 2004, the Dover Area School Board tried to introduce the ID textbook Of Pandas and People, published by the creationist Foundation for Thought and Ethics, into its science curriculum also under the guise of "supplemental material." After eleven parents challenged the board's actions, Judge John E. Jones ruled that intelligent design was merely revamped creationism and was unconstitutional in public school science class.

Even though McLeroy will no longer be on the board (he lost his primary reelection bid this spring to a more mainstream Republican), McLeroy said he believes the supplemental materials provision will create greater flexibility in what material may be adopted for the classrooms. Rather than meet all the new standards, the material only has to address some of them. "It allows for a small publisher to be competitive in the process," McLeroy said.

The board has not yet voted on whether to purchase social studies books, but those textbooks won't be up for selection until 2012.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, "[a nonpartisan, grassroots] watchdog, monitoring far-right issues, organizations, money and leaders," said it's going to require a watchful eye to prevent board members from using the new provision to adopt creationist-friendly or intelligent design literature.

Quinn said that board members could reject material for factual errors. "But then it becomes a battle among board of education members over whether it's accurate," he said.

Last year, McLeroy successfully included in the Texas' science standards such creationist code words such as "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency of scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil records." Another amendment says students will: "analyze and evaluate the scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell."

The wording could be used to justify the adoption of pro-intelligent design materials from organizations like the pro-ID Discovery Institute, which guided McLeroy in adopting the new language.

In addition to the issue of supplemental materials, the Texas Education Agency is now scrambling to complete its end-of-chapter tests, which are based on the new standards.

Since the vote, church and state watchdogs have been contemplating their next step. In the meantime, the Texas American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties groups are urging members to contact publishers asking them to not kowtow to the new standards.

Additionally, congressional redistricting will mean the entire 15-member board is up for election in 2012. Quinn said there's a good chance that a fed-up public may replace conservative incumbents with a more moderate board. However, he fears that control of the board could swing back and forth between conservatives and moderates in elections every four years, much as it did in Kansas during its educational battles over evolution education. "I'm afraid this could create a sort of educational schizophrenia where teachers aren't sure what they're supposed to teach," he said.

Spirit of America

One of the new amendments places slavery as the third cause of the Civil War, behind states rights and sectionalism. Additionally, students must study the inaugural address of Confederate President Jefferson Davis alongside the writings of Abraham Lincoln.

McLeroy says that he and other board members weren't trying to ignore slavery as a cause of the Civil War. "There were multiple causes," he said. Davis' address, which reads eerily like a Tea Party manifesto, never mentions slavery, but the board makes no mention of teaching its own state's Ordinance of Secession, which states:

(Texas) was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits—a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretenses and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.

Board members decry the accusation that they are trying to whitewash history. But when they cherry-pick through historical documents, ignoring their state's own secession declaration, that denial rings hollow.

"I don't think they did this because they are racists," Quinn said. "I don't think they did this because they don't think slavery is abhorrent. It's just that they see everything through an ideological prism."

Rather than trying to present history as accurately as possible, it seems board members are rewriting it to fit their ideal of the future and using the classroom to further that ideology. For instance, McLeroy said the board has added many Hispanic names to the curriculum, but it also downplays the struggles that countless Americans have made in the struggle against oppression.

McLeroy said his goals have always been: Students should learn about "divine providence" and "In God we trust"; children should understand the constitution; they must understand that the U.S. is a "constitutional republic"; and they must be taught the principles on which this country was founded, including "American exceptionalism."

"The media has interpreted what we've been doing all wrong," he said.

McLeroy may insist that he's only about improving education with a more 'balanced' curriculum, but his numerous statements to the media—like last year's comment that women and minorities should be thankful to the white male majority for giving them the right to vote—paint a pretty clear picture of his goals.

Shortly before the final vote this spring McLeroy proposed an amendment declaring that muckraking journalists and modern-day historians are obsessed with oppression. His response: "[students should] contrast the tone [of those journalists and historians with]... the optimism of immigrants including Jean Pierre Godet as told in Thomas Kinkade's The Spirit of America."

Creatures of Cambrian May Have Lived On


Published: May 17, 2010


Ever since their discovery in 1909, the spectacular Burgess Shale outcrops in the Canadian Rockies have presented scientists with a cornucopia of evidence for the "explosion" of complex, multicellular life beginning some 550 million years ago.

The fossils, all new to science, were at first seen as little more than amazing curiosities from a time when life, except for bacteria and algae, was confined to the sea — and what is now Canada was just south of the Equator. In the last half century, however, paleontologists recognized that the Burgess Shale exemplified the radiation of diverse life forms unlike anything in earlier time. Here was evolution in action, organisms over time responding to changing fortunes through natural experimentation in new body forms and different ecological niches.

But the fossil record then goes dark: the Cambrian-period innovations in life appeared to have few clear descendants. Many scientists thought that the likely explanation for this mysterious disappearance was that a major extinction had wiped out much of the distinctive Cambrian life. It seemed that the complex organisms emerging in the Cambrian had come to an abrupt demise, disappearing with few traces in the later fossil record.

Not everyone was convinced, however, and now a trove of 480-million-year-old fossils in Morocco appears to strike a blow to the idea of a major extinction. The international team of scientists who discovered the 1,500 fossils said their find shows that the dark stretch in the fossil record more probably reflects an absence of preservation of fossils over the previous 25 million years.

The team reports in the current issue of the journal Nature that the large number of "exceptionally preserved" Moroccan species exhibits apparently strong links to Cambrian species known from fossil beds in China, Greenland and, most notably, the Burgess Shale. The scientists think this solves the mystery. The Moroccan fossils, they said, establish that Burgess Shale-type species "continued to have an important role in the diversity and ecological structure of deeper marine communities well after the Middle Cambrian."

The Moroccan fossils include sponges, worms, trilobites and mollusks like clams, snails and relatives of the living nautilus. Another fossil was similar to today's horseshoe crab, a biological throwback familiar to beachcombers. Now, the scientists said, its antiquity appears to be even greater — some 30 million years earlier than previously thought, possibly in the late Cambrian.

The discovery team's principal scientist and lead author of the journal article was Peter Van Roy, a Belgian paleontologist who is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. He has worked in Moroccan fossil beds the last 10 years, but it was only last year on a field trip, financed by the National Geographic Society, that he and other scientists uncovered the riches of a site near the Atlas Mountains and the city of Zagora.

Scientists from Britain, France, Ireland, Morocco and the United States participated in the research and were co-authors of the team report. A local fossil collector, Mohammed Ou Said Ben Moulal, directed Dr. Van Roy to the rock outcrops he had scouted.

Soon it became clear, Dr. Van Roy said last week in an e-mail message from Morocco, that the team had "really discovered the whole gamut of these Burgess animals, the majority of which had never been found after the Middle Cambrian."

A leading member of the team, Derek E. G. Briggs, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, cut his academic teeth studying the Burgess Shale. Dr. Briggs figured prominently in "Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History," the 1989 book by Stephen Jay Gould about what the author called the "weird wonders" of the Cambrian period.

In the book, Dr. Gould, who died in 2002, pondered the mystery of the relatively sudden burst of new life designs in the Cambrian, followed by their apparent disappearance. "What turned it off so quickly?" he asked. A few pages before, quoting Charles Darwin, he seemed to despair of finding the fossils to answer the question.

"Darwin wrote," Dr. Gould recalled, "that our imperfect fossil record is like a book preserving just a few pages, of these pages few lines, of the lines few words, and of those words few letters."

Darwin's metaphor pertained to the chances of preservation for bones and teeth. So referring to the predominance of soft-body anatomies of Cambrian life, Dr. Gould asked, "What hope can then be offered to the flesh and blood amidst the slings and arrows of such outrageous fortune?"

Dr. Briggs said in an interview that scientists for some time have suspected that "we were just not finding the right deposits and only seeing a small piece of the picture of what was going on in life back then."

For that reason, Dr. Briggs said, he expected other scientists would be less surprised by the discovery than reassured. The fossil record for a long stretch after the Middle Cambrian may be spotty and minimal, but has not vanished. The Moroccan fossils not only reveal the continuation of many Cambrian life forms, he said, but show "the high potential that there are other places for finding these Cambrian-like organisms persisting in time."

As a consequence, the discovery team wrote, the Moroccan sediments offer promising links between the Cambrian Explosion of multicellular life, exemplified in the Burgess Shale, and the early stages of what is known as the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event, which is considered "one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of marine life."

This led to the emergence of fish about 400 million years ago and the migration of four-limbed vertebrates from water onto land 360 million years ago. After the catastrophic mass extinction at the end of the Permian period, about 250 million years ago, the dinosaurs came to the fore in a reptilian world, and after their extinction 65 million years ago, mammals came into their own, hominids evolving probably less than 8 million years ago, modern humans less than 200,000 years ago.

That any of these early Ordovician remains endured verges on the miraculous. Some with shells could be expected to fossilize, but most of these were soft-bodied creatures, prone to rapid decay. The Moroccan fossil beds, Dr. Briggs noted, were once the muddy bottom of an ocean. Storms stirred up the seabed, burying doomed creatures safe from scavengers and in recesses with little or no oxygen to promote decomposition. The sediment chemistry transformed iron and sulfide into pyrite, which coated and preserved the shapes of the animals, including their appendages, and mineralized internal tissue.

"The exquisite preservation of the soft anatomy," Dr. Van Roy said, "allows more complete, accurate reconstructions of their genetic affinities and ecology than has hitherto been possible."

Hard at work last week in the Moroccan fossil beds, Dr. Van Roy said, "I obviously intend to exploit this fantastic research opportunity to the fullest."

On Science and Religion, It's Hard to Walk a Middle Road


by Chris Mooney

It is no secret that our book, Unscientific America, which will soon release in paperback, displeased many New Atheists. They didn't much like the argument that science and religion can work together, rather than always being at odds; that constant warfare between the two isn't necessary, and can be destructive.

But don't forget that there is another side in this debate that is also devoted to incompatibility, rather than reconciliation–the anti-science "intelligent design" types. Here is none other than Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute criticizing those like myself, or Michael Ruse, who are atheists but also take a compatibilist stance:

So it turns out that atheists like Ruse and Mooney promote compatibility between God and evolution out of constitutional concerns. They fear that if atheism and evolution become too closely linked, this could make the teaching of evolution unconstitutional. Thus, they feel they'd better fix the problem by going around preaching that God and evolution are compatible.

Now they might genuinely believe it's possible to reconcile God and evolution, but then again, don't forget we're talking about ardent evolutionists and atheists who personally reject belief in God and expressly admit legally / politically oriented motives for pushing the compatibilist perspective. Isn't that at least a little suspicious?

In any case, this could explain the curious crusade of atheists who go around preaching on the compatibility of God and evolution.

The website where this appears, by the way, is bibleprophecyupdate.com. Wow.

Luskin is wrong about my motives and beliefs…for instance, the main thing that has made me more aware of the possibility of science-religion compatibility is probably getting to know people who exhibit such compatibilism in their own lives and seem to do very well with it. Such folks seem to me to be eminent allies in the defense of science and reason.

As for my views being motivated by constitutional concerns–well, yeah, I'm definitely concerned that incorrect arguments about science and religion, such as those propounded by the Discovery Institute, might lead to strikes against the teaching of evolution.

But anyways. This just goes to show you that it isn't always easy taking the middle ground.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

How Have Darwin Lobbyists Misused the Santorum Amendment?


Gonzaga University law professor David DeWolf's recent article in University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy retells the history of the Santorum Amendment. This first installment explained the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the Santorum Amendment language into the Conference Report of the No Child Left Behind Act. This second installment will quote further from his article, "The 'Teach the Controversy' Controversy," and give examples of how evolution lobbyists have not only wrongly accused "teaching the controversy" proponents of "misleading" school boards "as to the content of the law," but also how these same Darwin advocates have themselves understated the importance of Congress's statement in the Santorum Amendment. Professor DeWolf's full article can be read here.

Opponents of the "teach the controversy" approach went to great lengths to mischaracterize what Congress did. One of the first opportunities to debate the significance of the Santorum language was at a public hearing held by the Ohio State Board of Education in early 2002. After the Board received competing recommendations for new science standards, it voted to hold a public hearing, inviting advocates of the "teach the controversy" strategy to debate opponents of this approach. Representing the proponents' view were Stephen C. Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and co-author of the language that was cited by Senator Santorum in introducing his amendment, and Dr. Jonathan Wells, an embryologist, author of Icons of Evolution.79

Meyer proposed that Ohio should adopt the "teach the controversy" principle in part because "federal educational policy calls for precisely this kind of approach."80 Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University and author of a widely used high school biology textbook, was a representative of those who opposed "teaching the controversy," and spent part of his time in the hearing demonstrating that the Santorum language had been "struck from the bill" and was not part of the No Child Left Behind Act.81 He claimed:

During the March 11, 2002 panel discussion on evolution in front of the Ohio Board of Education, the Discovery Institute's Stephen Meyer claimed that two purportedly anti-evolution sentences known as the "Santorum Amendment" were part of the recently-signed Education Bill, and therefore that the State of Ohio was obligated to teach alternative theories to evolution as part of its biology curriculum. I answered Meyer's contention by showing, using my own computer, that the Santorum language was not in the Bill, a copy of which I had downloaded from the Congressional web site. The effect on the crowd in attendance was devastating. A proponent of "Intelligent Design" had been caught misleading the Board as to the content of the law.82

Similar claims were made by other Santorum opponents. In a law review article Professor Jay Wexler addressed both the "teach the controversy" concept in general, as well as the Santorum amendment and its developments in Ohio. He reported that, following the vote in the Senate, evolution supporters wrote to the Chairmen of the House and Senate Education Committees asking for deletion of the Santorum language from the bill.83 After describing the justifications contained in the letter, Wexler reports:

The evolutionists got their wish. When the Joint House and Senate Conference Committee conferred in December, 2001 to create a final version of the education bill to present to the President. . .it deleted the controversial amendment from the text of the legislation. Instead, an altered version of the amendment was inserted into the explanatory committee report, which does not itself constitute a source of law. . .Thus, although it flirted with the idea for a while, for the time being at least, the U.S. Congress as a whole has made no official pronouncement on the question of how public schools ought to teach their students about the origins of life and the universe.84

In a book-length attack on the Intelligent Design movement, Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross claim:

Despite the shaky (or even nonexistent) legal status of the Santorum amendment, the Wedge accomplished what they initially set out to do: they managed to influence the legislative process regarding legislation of signal importance to science education, getting the initial sense of the Senate passed with an overwhelmingly supportive vote (91–8) before it was removed by the conference committee.85

Forrest and Gross recognize that the language in the joint explanatory statement "left intact" the language from the Santorum amendment, but they rely on the erroneous claim of Professor Hirsch that conference report language is insignificant.86

Opponents of the Santorum language would also argue that even if the Santorum language did have some faint legal effect, it would still fail to offer support for advocates of alternative theories such as Intelligent Design, because the Conference Report language only encouraged the presentation of "the full range of scientific views."Furthermore, they assert that Intelligent Design falls outside of "anything that could be properly included among the "full range of scientific views," Santorum offers no support for altering science education.87

These valiant efforts to spin the Santorum language do not change a few basic facts: first, the Santorum language was initially enthusiastically endorsed by the United States Senate, and then endorsed in a slightly modified form by the entire United States Congress. The significance of this fact should be seen in light of the usual association of "evolution opponents" with small rural school boards with sincere but non-professional members. Because the Santorum language was never intended to require that schools teach the controversy, but only convey Congressional endorsement of that approach, it does not resolve the question of whether such an approach would be constitutional, or even if it were, whether it constitutes good educational policy. Critics of the 'teach the controversy" approach continue to deny both propositions.

(David K. DeWolf, "The 'Teach the Controversy' Controversy," University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. VI (1): 326-353 (Fall, 2009).

References Cited:

[79.] Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, (1986).

[80.] Stephen C. Meyer, Teach the Controversy, Cincinnati Enquirer, March 20, 2002

[81.] Kenneth Miller, A Law by Any Other Name?

[82.] Id.

[83.] Jay D. Wexler, Darwin, Design, and Disestablishment: Teaching the Evolution Controversy in Public Schools, 56 Vand. L. Rev. 751, 766 (2003).

[84.] Wexler, at 766–67 (footnotes omitted).

[85.] Barbara Forrest & Paul A. Gross, Creationism's Trojan Horse, pp. 244–45 (2004).

[86.] "[T]he watered down version that appeared in the explanatory statement was added at the behest of a special interest group and did not receive the endorsement of Congress as a whole. In such situations, courts give legislative history little weight even as an interpretive tool. They in no way treat it as the considered `federal law' on the subject." Forrest & Gross, supra note 85 at 244.

[87.] Id.

Posted by Casey Luskin on June 4, 2010 8:00 AM | Permalink

Ayala: "For the record, I read Signature in the Cell"


Over at BioLogos, Professor Francisco Ayala has responded to Signature of Controversy—the collection of responses to criticisms of Signature in the Cell. As with the previous Ayala response at BioLogos, this one includes an introduction by Darrell Falk.

The burden of Ayala's response is to wax indignant that some of us have suggested, based on his original "response" to Signature in the Cell, that he had not actually read the book. Why would we suggest that? Well, because he so profoundly misrepresented Meyer's thesis.

Here's what he said: "The keystone argument of Signature [sic] of the Cell is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms." He goes on to suggest that Meyer spends "most" of his book attempting to refute the chance hypothesis. Really.

This is such a whopper that I would have expected Ayala not to bring it up again. But in his current response, he begins:

Dr. Stephen Meyer writes: "eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala does not appear to have even made a search for the crib notes online. Indeed, ... it appears that he did little more than glance at the title page and table of contents" (p. 9). David Klinghoffer disagrees: "My colleague Dr. Meyer thinks Ayala did read the Table of Contents, but I must disagree" (p. 19).

Is this the kind of language Meyer and Klinghoffer want to use to engage in constructive dialogue with their critics? Or does it represent a distinctive way in which members of the Discovery Institute seek to practice Christian charity?

For the record, I read Signature in the Cell.

To justify his original characterization of Meyer's book, Ayala then offers an analysis of the index of Signature in the Cell, which lists a variety of pages in which "chance" appears, to establish his original assertion. This discussion is beginning to enter the Twilight Zone.

Ayala implies that Discovery Institute folks have failed to practice Christian charity in suggesting that he didn't read Signature in the Cell before commenting on it. (This is a curious complaint, coming from Ayala, who has repeatedly charged that intelligent design is blasphemy.) But does anyone—friend or critic—actually believe that Ayala provided an accurate summary of Meyer's argument? Would Darrell Falk, for instance, be willing to state, on the record, that "[t]he keystone argument of Signature [in] the Cell is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms"?

I'm willing to state, for the record, that I don't think that any competent reader could read SITC, with its chapters lovingly devoted to critiques of self-organizational theories, pre-biotic selection theories that combine chance and necessity, and which explores the possibility of chance while clearly stating that the chance hypothesis is no longer seriously entertained by origin-of-life theorists, and come away thinking that Ayala had accurately summarized the book. That would be true even if the word "chance" occurred on every single page. You don't find the thesis of a book in its index, for goodness' sake.

Given the above assumption, and the assumption that Ayala is a competent reader—both ideas shared by my colleagues who have weighed in on this question—by far the most charitable interpretation of Ayala's summary is that he didn't read the book. If he really has read Signature in the Cell, and yet is still defending his false summary, what should we conclude?

Posted by Jay W. Richards on June 4, 2010 12:17 PM | Permalink

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Templeton Foundation's Quest For The Science Of Religion


June 4, 20105:50 AM
Post by Lauri Lebo

Nathan Schneider has an investigative piece in The Nation on the Templeton Foundation, which, with its $1 billion in assets, is one of the richest philanthropic organizations in the country and the leading funder of research into science and religion. Schneider takes a close analytical look at this powerhouse, which seeks to "encourage all people to think that progress in spiritual information is possible, desirable, can be done and will be done."

While Templeton money supports other causes, Schneider writes, "like promoting virtue, encouraging gifted youth and fostering free enterprise, its core concerns are more cosmic: 'Does the universe have a purpose?' 'Does science make belief in God obsolete?' 'Does evolution explain human nature?'"

Schneider, who is also a regular contributor to Religion Dispatches, also explores the controversial nature of the organization:

The zoologist and author Richard Dawkins quipped in his 2006 book The God Delusion that the Templeton Prize goes "usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion." He and others among the so-called New Atheists have been the foundation's most strident critics lately; they believe Templeton is corrupting science by trying to inject it with religious dogma and, in turn, misrepresent science to the public. The advance of science steamrolls over religion, they say, and Templeton is deluding people into thinking otherwise.

These are no minor charges. Recent years have witnessed political and religious campaigns to both undermine and co-opt scientific authority on matters ranging from climate change to sex education to evolution. Organizations like Answers in Genesis, which advocates for young-earth creationism, and the Discovery Institute, which orchestrates the intelligent-design movement, have been trying to squeeze creationism into public school science classes. Within this environment, Templeton has struggled to maintain a delicate balance between alarmed scientists on one side and its mission to bring religion into conversation with science on the other.

The piece is sure to spark debate between those who believe both science and religion play a role in our greater understanding of the universe and those who say religion hinders progress.

Evolution education update: June 4, 2010

Two antievolution bills in the South Carolina legislature are dead; a new survey suggests that a quarter of Americans don't agree that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old; and NCSE's Joshua Rosenau reviews a book for the Washington Post.


Two antievolution bills, Senate Bill 873 and Senate Bill 875, died in committee when the South Carolina legislature adjourned on June 3, 2010. Both bills were introduced on May 21, 2009, and referred to the Senate Education Committee, where they apparently never received a hearing. Both bills were sponsored by Senator Michael Fair (R-District 6), who spearheaded a number of previous antievolution efforts in South Carolina. With respect to his 2003 attempt to establish a committee to "determine whether alternatives to evolution as the origin of species should be offered in schools," the Greenville News (May 1, 2003) reported that Fair "said his intention is to show that Intelligent Design is a viable scientific alternative that should be taught in the public schools."

A version of the "academic freedom" antievolution bill, S. 875 provided, "Teachers must be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course. ... School governing authorities including, but not limited to, school and district superintendents, principals, and administrators, may not prohibit a teacher in a public school in this State from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course." Since 2004, thirty-two "academic freedom" antievolution bills have been introduced; all but one, Louisiana's SB 561/733, failed to pass.

S. 873, however, was apparently unique. If enacted, it would have required the state board of education to "examine all curriculum in use in this State that purports to teach students about the origins of mankind to determine whether the curriculum maintains neutrality toward religion." The bill further provided, "Related to non-religion, the examination must include a review as to whether the curriculum contains a sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus preferring those who believe in no religion over those who hold religious beliefs." If the review revealed that a curriculum is not religiously neutral, then the bill would have required that "the offending curriculum must be revised or replaced as soon as practicable."

For the text of S. 873 and S. 873, visit:

For NCSE's coverage of Louisiana's SB 561/733, visit:

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


A new poll commissioned by Daily Kos included a question on the origin of the universe. Asked "[m]ost astronomers believe the universe formed about 13.7 billion years ago in a massive event called the Big Bang. Do you think that's about right or do [you] think the universe was created much more recently," 62% of respondents in the United States indicated their acceptance of the 13.7-billion-year figure, while 25% indicated that the universe was created much more recently, and 13% were not sure.

Women were more likely than men to accept the 13.7-billion-year figure (64% versus 60%), Democrats more likely than independents, and independents more likely than Republicans (71%, 66%, and 44%, respectively), blacks and Latinos more likely than whites (75%, 73%, and 58%, respectively), and people in the northeast, west, and midwest more likely than people in the south (72%, 69%, 64%, and 48%, respectively). Younger respondents were more likely to accept it than older respondents.

According to the methodology section of the report, "[t]he Daily Kos weekly National Poll was conducted by Research 2000 May 24 through May 27, 2010. A total of 1200 registered voters nationally were interviewed by telephone. A cross-section of calls was made into each state in the country in order to reflect the registered voting population nationally. The margin for error, according to standards customarily used by statisticians, is no more than plus or minus 2.8% percentage points."

For the report, visit:

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


NCSE's Joshua Rosenau reviewed Elaine Howard Ecklund's Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford University Press, 2010) for the Washington Post (May 30, 2010). "Americans are almost evenly divided between those who feel science conflicts with religion and those who don't. Both sides have scientific backers," Rosenau explains. "Ecklund offers a fresh perspective on this debate ... 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." He concludes, "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."

For Rosenau's review, 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.
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Thursday, June 03, 2010

More Americans Paying Out-Of-Pocket for Alternative Medicine


Data shows more people are seeking alternative treatments and willing to pay.

Publish Date: 2010-06-02

According to the most current available data provided by the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). The survey, conducted between 2002 and 2007, shows Americans spent $33.9 billion out-of-pocket on CAM, approximately 1.5 percent of total health care expenditures and 11.2 percent of total out-of-pocket expenditures on health care.

"Almost all of my patients receiving neurofeedback therapy have already spent a lot of time and money trying to find an affective treatment," said Mindy Fox, a leading Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in neurofeedback therapy. "Many people pay for this treatment out-of-pocket because it's so much more successful than anything else they've tried. Cost becomes less of an issue when a health problem is affecting quality of life."

Most alternative treatments such as acupuncture and neurofeedback therapy (EEG biofeedback) are not covered by insurers or the coverage is highly dependent on the case or results, and even then, coverage can change at the insurer's will.

The NHIS study shows U.S. adults spent approximately $11.9 billion on an estimated 354.2 million visits to CAM practitioners such as acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, etc. An estimated $22.0 billion was spent on CAM products, classes and materials -- the majority going to the purchase of nonvitamin, nonmineral, natural products ($14.8 billion) such as fish oil, glucosamine and Echinacea.

"We are seeing a large increase in patients quarter-to-quarter, and most of them self pay," said Fox. "I believe this is because the results patients get from neurofeedback therapy are significant, long-term and forever change the way they live. Neurofeedback doesn't simply treat the symptoms, it helps combat the root issue."

Most patients who receive treatments such as neurofeedback therapy are generally looking to treat issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorders, post traumatic stress disorders, among others. It's also used by many professional athletic teams and corporations to help executives and high performance athletes manage their stress and anxiety on game day or for that big board meeting.

Mindy Fox is a licensed marriage and family therapist with over eighteen years of experience. With a Master of Arts in Psychotherapy, Fox is also certified in somatic experiencing and trained in neurofeedback EEG (also referred to as biofeedback therapy). Her expertise in psychotherapy, EMDR, and neurofeedback helps her treat clients with attention deficit disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression issues. Fox employs body-mind therapy techniques such as EMDR, somatic experiencing, guided imagery, and neurofeedback, along with traditional methods to treat clients of all ages. Fox chairs the State CAMFT Trauma Response Committee and served as President of South Bay/Long Beach CAMFT Chapter.

Lawyer reprimanded in civil case against science teacher


Thursday, June 3, 2010 02:57 AM
By Dean Narciso


A federal judge has sanctioned a Grove City lawyer for failing to provide documents and materials sought during preparation for a trial of a lawsuit against Mount Vernon Middle School teacher John Freshwater.

R. Kelly Hamilton had told Judge Gregory L. Frost that he threw away a computer holding some of the information sought when pipes burst at his office, according to the federal order.

Hamilton also failed to provide billing records related to affidavits prepared for Freshwater's administrative hearing. That hearing, to help determine whether Freshwater will keep his public teaching job, is expected to end Tuesday.

The order indicates Frost's irritation at Hamilton's behavior.

"Then Hamilton, again the victim of a notable lack of luck, failed to appear at the hearing to explain himself because he suffered not one but two flat tires on the drive to the courthouse," wrote Frost in the order of sanctions released this week.

Hamilton has been ordered to pay attorneys fees for lost time. Doug Mansfield said he and two other attorneys will be compensated for the lapses, but he didn't know how much.

Hamilton has been ordered to deliver the materials by June 16 or face harsher sanctions.

Freshwater is being sued by Steve and Jenifer Dennis, who say the teacher taught creationism and intelligent design in science class, displayed religious items in the classroom and burned a cross on their eighth-grade son's arm with an electrical device used to test laboratory gases.

In a related ruling, Frost issued a gag order against all parties in the civil suit after Freshwater took a settlement offer marked "confidential" from the Dennises and read it verbatim at a school board meeting.

Frost wrote that Freshwater's behavior "jeopardizes the court's ability to seat an impartial jury in this matter."


Ulster Museum Creationism idea was about diversity


Thursday, 3 June 2010

The American writer E B White once said that: "Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts."

That quotation came to mind when I read the letter from Chris Conwell of Fermanagh Ogra Sinn Fein (Write Back, June 1) in relation to the Ulster Museum because, quite clearly, he has not bothered to get the facts before writing his letter.

He describes me as a "one culture" minister, in spite of the fact that the core of my letter to the trustees of the Ulster Museum was about a shared future, good relations, human rights, and equality. I asked the museum to address a number of themes such as "recognition of the diversity of traditions that exist in Northern Ireland, and respect for this diversity".

Moreover, I suggested to the museum that they consider the inclusion of information about not only the Orange Order, but other fraternal organisations, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

He states that I "lambasted" the Ulster Museum. Nothing could be further from the truth.

He suggests that I would be at home with Pol Pot and that brought to mind another saying,: 'There are none so blind as those who will not see.'

In fact, Pol Pot was responsible for a strategy of mass-murder and genocide in Cambodia. I would suggest that if Chris is looking for people in Northern Ireland who might be at home with Pol Pot, he might look nearer home - especially those who carried out a 30-year terrorist campaign of murder.


Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure

Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/letters/ulster-museum-creationism-idea-was-about-diversity-14829290.html#ixzz0pns8eiak

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Funding of Creationist Organizations Doubles


June 1, 201010:43AM

Dick Hoppe at Pandas Thumb has an interesting post on growing funding of Young Earth Creationist organizations.

Todd's Blog, via PT, reports that that total market for YEC organizations has more than doubled from $14.6 million in 2003 to $33.3 million in 2008 (the last year 990 tax records are available).

Answers In Genesis remains the big boy in the business, far ahead of Creation Ministries International (from which AIG split a few years ago) and Institute for Creation Institute. AIG is the owner of the Kentucky-based Creation Museum, which features saddle-wearing dinosaurs and a recreation of Noah's Ark built to biblical scale.

Sadly, the gross revenue of National Center for Science Education, the primary defender of public education from anti-science attacks by such religious organizations, is only 5.7 percent of the $22.7 million AIG brought in in 2008.

Also, an interesting newcomer to watch is GodQuest, founded by Eric Hovind, the son of Kent "Dr. Dino" Hovind, the disgraced creationist currently residing in federal prison for tax fraud and creator of the DVD series Why Evolution is Stupid. In 2008, the organization, also known as Creation Science Evangelism, brought in more than $931,000 in sales and donations.

The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which pushes the creationist concept of intelligent design, was not included in the ranking.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Discovery Institute is desperately patching Meyer's mind-numbing magnum opus


Category: Creationism
Posted on: June 1, 2010 12:31 PM, by PZ Myers

As you've probably heard, Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute published a book last year calle Signature in the Cell. It stunk, it got virtually no reviews from the scientific community, although it was avidly sucked up by the fans of Intelligent Design creationism. One curious thing about the book is that it has sunk out of sight already, which is a bit peculiar and a bit disappointing for an explanation that was promised to revitalize ID.

Remember Michael Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box? I'll give Behe credit, that one was well-marketed and got the brief attention of many scientists, who read it bogglingly, recognizing quickly that it was poor fare written by someone with no idea of what was going on in evolutionary biology and genetics. But at least it was quick and punchy, and had some great PR slogans that still get thrown around — 'irreducible complexity', anyone?

Meyer's book had none of that. It's a bloated paperweight, full of self-indulgent preening by Meyer, and without a single novel idea in it — it's simply the most unmemorable, uninteresting pile of schlock the DI has turned out yet.

And I think the DI knew it. As mentioned before, the marketing was awful — they worked hard to keep it out of the hands of scientists who might review it ahead of time, which was an awful mistake. Even if we were pretty much guaranteed to trash it, it would be publicity — look again at Darwin's Black Box. If there was even a hint of controversy in the text, the best move would have been to fan it. But no…it is the most boringly tedious mess, and the only stories they got were scientists rolling their eyes in boredom.

Recently, reviews have trickled in…all negative. So what does the Discovery Institute do? Would you believe they have published a whole book titled Signature Of Controversy: Responses to Critics of Signature in the Cell? It's only 105 pages long, so it's a more digestible read than Meyer's book, and it's also a free download.

It's impressive. It's a bad idea to spend too much time responding to criticisms, but the staff at the DI have been so peevish that they've written an entire book in an angry tone (hah! Tone!) in ineffectual reply. Here's an example of their cranky wit, from an introduction in which they classify their critics as either "distinguished scientists who haven't read the book" or "pygmies who populate the furious, often obscene Darwinist blogs".

For example, Jerry Coyne is a University of Chicago biologist who lately seems to spend most of his time blogging. Yet he clearly belongs among the ranks of the more distinguished writers who bashed Meyer's book without reading it or reading about it. On the other hand, such an individual as blogger Jeffrey Shallit, mathematician at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada--not to be confused with the University of Wallamaloo of Monty Python fame--may object to being classed as a pygmy. Oh well. Sorry.

That's fairly typical of how they handle their critics: if they're a big name in the field, claim that they've never read the book; if they're less well known, point out that they aren't associated with the big name universities like the University of Chicago or Harvard. I even get this treatment in their brief section on me, who gets both barrels of their dual strategy:

All the people who hate Meyer's book appear not to have read it. So too we have the complaint of Darwinian-atheist agitator P. Z. Myers, a popular blogger and biologist. Myers explains that he was unable to read the book, which he slimes as a "stinker" and as "drivel," due to his not having received a promised free review copy! But rest assured. The check is in the mail: "I suppose I'll have to read that 600 page pile of slop sometime... maybe in January."

Dr. Myers teaches at the Morris, Minnesota, satellite campus of the University of Minnesota, a college well known as the Harvard of Morris, Minnesota. So you know when he evaluates a book and calls it "slop," a book on which he has not laid on eye, that's a view that carries weight.

In all seriousness, what is this with people having any opinion at all of a book that, allow me to repeat, they haven't read and of which, as with Jerry Coyne, they admit they haven't so much as read a review?

It's true that I hadn't read the book when I wrote that, and it's also true that they had pre-empted many of their potential critics by promising a review copy and never delivering. They still haven't sent the promised copy, but I did buy one — used, for cheap — and actually did read it last January. I'd also seen the reviews and found the absence of any substantive content in the descriptions telling. Since reading it, which was a genuinely agonizing experience since Meyer is such a pretentious writer who goes on and on at painful length about nothing at all, I have to tell you that my summary was spot-on.

I haven't posted a review because, honestly, it's a book guaranteed to inspire nothing but ennui. There isn't one solid nugget of substance or even sharply defined ideas, no matter how wrong, in the entire pile of sludge. I can, however, pull up a summary from near the end of the book, in Meyer's own words. This is the logical edifice on which his story is based. See if you can spot the flaws.

Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for information in the cell.

You'll notice the key phrase in there is "specified information". I looked through the whole book for a definition. There is none. Well, that's not quite true: I did find this sentence:

The term specified complexity is, therefore, a synonym for specified information or information content.

Whoa. One vague tautology is all he's got to back that up. Notice how revealing that is about his first point above: his entire book peddles this idea that no one has demonstrated a natural mechanism for producing specified information. But of course, any one with any competence in this subject can tell you all kinds of ways a genome can produce increases in information, the kind that has a few mathematical definitions and is measurable, so Meyer tosses in that magic modifier, specified, to throw away a big chunk of the literature that troublingly contradicts him.

If it helps to grasp the rhetorical game he's playing, just substitute the word "magic" for "specified". It's perfectly equivalent.

Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of magic information.

Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of magic information.

Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for information in the cell.


In those terms, his first point is correct but uninteresting. Material causes do not produce magic information, but so what? They do produce mundane information, and that's all we need to describe a cell. Meyer also fails to demonstrate that cells contain any magic information in the first place.

Now, though, it also ruins his second point. I would cheerfully concede that intelligent processes can change the information content in a cell, and would have agreed with him on one third of his syllogism…but, unfortunately, I know of no way to produce magic information, since Meyer hasn't bothered to define it.

And his final point is both nonsense and dishonest. Note that he has left the specified magic qualifier off the word information this time; it's a cheap sleight of hand. Even so, though, to accept his conclusion requires accepting a false premise, that natural process have not been demonstrated to produce new information, and therefore we have to accept his claim that ID is the best explanation around.

Really, that's all there is, that's the core of that 600 page behemoth of noise. It is most unpersuasive. Perhaps that's why they've had to produce a lengthy, carping criticism of their critics.

But don't let me give you the wrong impression: they only mentioned me in a few paragraphs, and you've just seen everything they had to say about me. The bulk of the book is dedicated to a few people who have made some telling criticisms: Francisco Ayala, Darrel Falk, Jeffrey Shallit, and Steve Matheson (I must also mention AG Hunt, who also has some great critiques…but got ignored by the DI). In particular, I recommend Shallit as someone who actually knows information theory well and does a fine job describing how Meyer butchers it; I also have to recommend Matheson's amazingly thorough chapter-by-chapter dissection of the book. If anything should be published, it's those blog entries, which neatly expose the dishonesty and ignorance that permeates every page of Meyer's hackwork. I don't know how he did it, because Signature in the Cell was exasperatingly boring to me, and after reading it twice I never want anything more to do with it ever again. Maybe Matheson has discovered one virtue to religion (he's a Calvinist biologist, by the way): it teaches one how to pore over meaningless, badly written texts without lapsing into a coma.

Young Earth Creationism: Not Only in America


Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D..Founder, The Clergy Letter Project
Posted: June 1, 2010 02:41 AM

As recently as 2000, the late Stephen Jay Gould reassured the world that we needn't worry about creationism because it was a "peculiarly American" phenomenon. Ron Numbers's insightful and comprehensive book, The Creationists, quoted Gould as saying, "As insidious as it may seem, at least it's not a worldwide movement. I hope everyone realizes the extent to which this is a local, indigenous, American bizarrity."

Gould wasn't wrong about much, but on this particular topic he could not have been more wrong.

While it is certainly true that the US population consistently rejects evolution to a greater extent than people in the rest of the developed world (with the exception of the citizens of Turkey), creationism has increasingly become a matter of contention around the world.

The most recent non-US outbreak has taken place in Northern Ireland, where the Belfast Telegraph brought a fundamentalist minister and a Queens University scientist -- a church-going Christian scientist at that -- together for "a tour of the natural history section of the newly refurbished Ulster Museum."

Reverend David McIlveen, a Free Presbyterian minister, asserted that he believes "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."

Dr. Chris Hunt, a paleoecologist, had a very different perspective: "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."

What led to this spectacle in Ulster?

Nelson McCausland, Northern Ireland's Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, is responsible for this latest attack on basic science. McCausland wrote a letter to the Ulster Museum's board of trustees asking them to consider "how alternative views on the origin of the universe and the origin of life can be recognised and accommodated in national museums." His letter went on to say that he wanted "to ensure that museums are reflective of the views, beliefs and cultural traditions that make up society in Northern Ireland."

In an interview with UTV McCausland further explained his position: "It was a request to the trustees asking is there any way in which you can reflect or accommodate the fact that here, in Northern Ireland, a third of the population would believe in either creation or intelligent design."

What McCausland and fellow creationists around the world forget is that the purpose of science museums is to educate the public about the best ideas science has to offer rather than making people who enter museums feel good because their particular ideas are presented. While our understanding of the natural world matures as additional experiments and observations are made, scientific consensus is based on technical expertise rather than public opinion.

But those who demand that their religious views be incorporated into science think otherwise. Walking through the Ulster Museum, Reverend McIlveen was willing to dismiss science completely, saying, "What I am looking at and listening to is only an opinion and nothing more." Apparently his skepticism knows no bounds. Upon coming across a rock brought back from the moon he 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."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the attack on science in Northern Ireland is paralleling the Texas State Board of Education's attack on science. In addition to complaining about the way evolutionary ideas are presented, McCausland, like the Texas SBoE, has also weighed in on history, wanting the museum to rewrite its presentation of the past. He has asked, for example, for more coverage of the The Orange Order, a Protestant society founded in 1795.

Whether it be in Northern Ireland, Texas, or anywhere else, societies suffer when they permit partisan politics and religious doctrine to trump science and history.

There is one additional striking parallel between what's going on with the Ulster Museum and creationist attacks in the United States. Clergy members in both locations who understand the proper role of religion and who recognize that it makes no sense for religion to attack scientific findings have come to the defense of science.

For example, Church of Ireland minister Ron Elson made it clear that he has no problem with an old earth: "The vast majority of scientific evidence from a huge number of different sources points to the fact that the earth is very, very old and not very, very young. It's evidenced from biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, you name it, the evidence all points in the one direction."

As I've said so often in the past, the problem is not between religion and science but between those who have a very narrow, fundamentalist view of religion and all the rest of us.