NTS LogoSkeptical News for 20 July 2010

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

[Editor's Alert: Discovery Institute Propaganda Piece. Enjoy.]

NAS's Draft "Framework for Science Education" Ignores Critical Thinking When Teaching Evolution


The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is drafting a "Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards" which contains guidelines and standards on how to teach evolution. As we've noted before here on ENV, science education authorities often laud the importance of using critical thinking when teaching science, but then they completely ignore or eschew such educational approaches when it comes to teaching evolution. They single out evolution as the topic where scientific critique or critical analysis is carefully avoided. The NAS's public preliminary draft "Framework for Science Education" (warning: large 6.8 Mb PDF file) uses exactly this approach.

Having perused the proposed draft framework and found some dogmatic statements about evolution, a few noteworthy points emerge. While some of the standards on evolution may be technically and/or partially correct, there are ZERO proposed standards that recognize important qualifications, limitations, and criticisms of these claims. There are also ZERO proposed standards that would allow for scientific critique of evolution.

Some of the more dogmatic and/or inaccurate standards include the following:

"Biological evolution explains the unity and diversity of species." (LS Core Idea 4, p. 7-18)

"The fossil record ... supports the idea that newer life forms descended from older life forms. DNA provides further evidence for lines of descent from ancestral species to later-appearing species." (LS4.A, p. 7-18)

"How does genetic information provide evidence for evolution? Anatomical similarities and differences among various organisms living today are compared to those of organisms in the fossil record in order to reconstruct evolutionary history and infer lines of evolutionary descent." (LS4.A, p. 7-18)

"The similarities and differences in DNA sequences, amino acid sequences, anatomical evidence, and fossil evidence provide information about the branching sequence of lines of evolutionary descent." (LS4.A, p. 7-18)

"Natural selection leads to a diversity of organisms that are anatomically, behaviorally and physiologically well suited to survive and reproduce in a specific environment." (LS4.C, p. 7-20)

"Charles Darwin's theory of evolution had a dramatic effect on biology because of his use of clear and understandable argument and the inclusion of a massive array of evidence to support the argument. Later evidence continues to support and refine this theory." (LS4.C, p. 7-20)

Consider in particular the dogmatic nature of the last standard listed above: '"Charles Darwin's theory of evolution had a dramatic effect on biology because of his use of clear and understandable argument and the inclusion of a massive array of evidence to support the argument," and "Later evidence continues to support" his theory. I could not find any section in the entire standards where any idea was presented in such a dogmatic fashion which pushed the pretense of 100% unqualified support from the data. Clearly, something's up.

What's ironic (though not surprising) is that while the draft framework treats evolution dogmatically, it pays lip service to critical thinking in many other sections. For example:

"From its inception, one focus of science education has been to develop scientific habits of mind such as the critical spirit which is the hallmark of the scientist, an understanding of the approach to scientific inquiry, and how to reason in a scientific context." (p. 5-1)

"Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science. Rather, it is core to the practice of science and without it the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible." (p. 5-7)

"Students also need the opportunity to experience the fact that any given set of data can be interpreted in different ways leading to different conclusions or that different models will lead to different predictions. Deciding upon which is better requires the experience of evaluating the merits of competing arguments, identifying the premises of an argument, and using counter arguments to test the validity of any argument under a range of circumstances. Offering up new theories, tentative explanations or new models for critical inspection by others is a key process in constructing reliable explanations of the material world." (pp. 5-19 to 5-20)

"Scientists need to be able to examine, review, and evaluate their own knowledge. Holding some parts of a theory as more or less established and being aware of the ways in which that knowledge may be incomplete are critical scientific practices." (p. 1-8)

"For scientists, responsibilities to science and to the broader community include honest reporting of results and information, evaluation and reporting of uncertainties and risks, informing policy decisions in responsible ways, engaging in the process of argumentation and critique that is key to developing scientific theories, and recognizing both honest mistakes and fraudulent results." (p. 4-23)

"The ability to examine one's own knowledge and conceptual frameworks, to evaluate them in relation to new information or competing alternative frameworks, and to alter them by a deliberate and conscious effort are essential key scientific practices that the idealized version offered by school science textbooks fails to recognize." (p. 2-2)

"In the hypothesis space, scientists and engineers develop their theories, designs and models, and consider alternative explanations..." (p. 5-4)

"One of the important outcomes of classroom discussion is for students to recognize that scientific inquiry is characterized by a common set of 17 values that include logical thinking, precision, open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism, and honest and ethical reporting of findings." (p. 4-21)

Too bad the NAS's writers don't recommend that teachers apply these good methods of practicing science when teaching evolution.

In fact, Jonathan Osborne, recent author of the Science paper suggesting that students should learn about the evidence that "that supports ... or does not support [a given theory]" or use "critique," is apparently on the committee that helped draft the framework. His bio in the document states:

His research focus is a mix of work on policy and pedagogy in the teaching and learning of science. In the policy domain, he is interested in exploring students' attitudes toward science and how school science can be made more worthwhile and engaging, particularly for those who will not continue with the study of science. In pedagogy, the focus has been on making the case for the role of argumentation in science education both as a means of improving the use of a more dialogic approach to teaching science and improving student understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry.

While some ideas or direct language from Osborne's Science paper can be found in the draft standards, none of those recommendations were applied in the sections on teaching evolution. Don't expect that to change; the last thing Darwin lobbyists want is students engaging in "argumentation" or "critique" when learning evolution. Critical thinking is allowed and encouraged, as long as you're not studying Darwin.

Posted by Casey Luskin on July 20, 2010 9:06 AM | Permalink

[Editor's Alert: Discovery Institute Propaganda Piece. Enjoy.]

Peer-Reviewed Paper Investigating Origin of Information Endorses Irreducible Complexity and Intelligent Design


A peer-reviewed paper, "Information and Entropy -- Top-Down or Bottom-Up Development in Living Systems?," by University of Leeds professor Andy McIntosh in the International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics expressly endorses intelligent design (ID) via an exploration of a key question in ID thinking:

The ultimate question in origins must be: Can information increase in a purely materialistic or naturalistic way? It is not satisfactory to simply assume that information has to have arisen in this way. The alternative of original design must be allowed and all options examined carefully.

A professor of thermodynamics and combustion theory, McIntosh is well acquainted with the workings of machinery. His argument is essentially twofold:

(1) First, he defines the term "machine" (a device which locally raises the free energy) and observes that the cell is full of machines. Such machines pose a challenge to neo-Darwinian evolution due to their irreducibly complex nature.

(2) Second, he argues that the information in living systems (similar to computer software) uses such machines and in fact requires machines to operate (what good is a program without a computer to run it?). An example is the genome sitting on the DNA molecule. From a thermodynamics perspective, the only way to make sense of this situation is to understand that the information is non-material and constrains the thermodynamics so that the local matter and energy are in a non-equilibrium state.

McIntosh addresses the objection that, thermodynamically speaking, highly organized low entropy structures can be formed at the expense of an increase in entropy elsewhere in the universe. However, he notes that this argument fails when applied to the origin of biological information:

whilst this argument works for structures such as snowflakes that are formed by natural forces, it does not work for genetic information because the information system is composed of machinery which requires precise and non-spontaneous raised free energy levels - and crystals like snowflakes have zero free energy as the phase transition occurs.

McIntosh then tackles the predominant reductionist view of biological information which "regards the coding and language of DNA as essentially a phenomenon of the physics and chemistry of the nucleotides themselves." He argues that this classical view is wrong, for "biological structures contain coded instructions which ... are not defined by the matter and energy of the molecules carrying this information."

According to McIntosh, Shannon information is not a good measure of biological information since it is "largely not relevant to functional information at the phenotype level." In his view, "[t]o consider biological information as simply a 'by product' of natural selective forces operating on random mutations is not only counter-intuitive, but scientifically wrong." According to McIntosh, one major reason for this is "the irreducibly complex nature of the machinery involved in creating the DNA/mRNA/ ribosome/amino acid/protein/DNA-polymerase connections." He continues:

All of these functioning parts are needed to make the basic forms of living cells to work. ... This, it may be argued, is a repeat of the irreducible complexity argument of Behe [67], and many think that that debate has been settled by the work of Pallen and Matzke [68] where an attempt to explain the origin of the bacterial flagellum rotary motor as a development of the Type 3 secretory system has been made. However, this argument is not robust simply because it is evident that there are features of both mechanisms which are clearly not within the genetic framework of the other. That is, the evidence, far from pointing to one being the ancestor of the other, actually points to them both being irreducibly complex. In the view of the author this argument is still a very powerful one.

Further citing Signature in the Cell, McIntosh states:

What is evident is that the initial information content in DNA and living proteins rather than being small must in fact be large, and is in fact vital for any process to work to begin with. The issue of functional complexity and information is considered exhaustively by Meyer [93, 94] who argues that the neo-Darwinist model cannot explain all the appearances of design in biology.

So how do biological systems achieve their highly ordered, low-entropy states? McIntosh's argument is complementary to that of Stephen Meyer's, but it takes a more thermodynamic approach. According to McIntosh, information is what allows biological systems to attain their high degrees of order:

the presence of information is the cause of lowered logical entropy in a given system, rather than the consequence. In living systems the principle is always that the information is transcendent to, but using raised free energy chemical bonding sites

McIntosh solves the problem of the origin of information by arguing that it must arise in a "top-down" fashion which requires the input of intelligence:

[T]here is a perfectly consistent view which is a top-down approach where biological information already present in the phenotypic creature (and not emergent as claimed in the traditional bottom-up approach) constrains the system of matter and energy constituting the living entity to follow intricate non-equilibrium chemical pathways. These pathways whilst obeying all the laws of thermodynamics are constantly supporting the coded software which is present within ... Without the addition of outside intelligence, raw matter and energy will not produce auto organization and machinery. This latter assertion is actually repeatedly borne out by experimental observation - new machinery requires intelligence. And intelligence in biological systems is from the non-material instructions of DNA.

This thinking can be applied to DNA: since "the basic coding is the cause (and thus reflects an initial purpose) rather than the consequence, [the top-down approach] gives a much better paradigm for understanding the molecular machinery which is now consistent with known thermodynamic principles." McIntosh explains that the low-entropy state of biological systems is the result of the workings of machines, which must be built by intelligence:

It has often been asserted that the logical entropy of a non-isolated system could reduce, and thereby new information could occur at the expense of increasing entropy elsewhere, and without the involvement of intelligence. In this paper, we have sought to refute this claim on the basis that this is not a sufficient condition to achieve a rise in local order. One always needs a machine in place to make use of an influx of new energy and a new machine inevitably involves the systematic raising of free energies for such machines to work. Intelligence is a pre-requisite.

He concludes his paper with an express endorsement of intelligent design: "the implication of this paper is that it supports the so-called intelligent design thesis - that an intelligent designer is needed to put the information into the biological system."

I have no doubt that the editors of International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics will take much heat for publishing this paper. Even though they make it clear that "[t]he reader should not assume that the Journal or the reviewers agree with the conclusions of the paper," they should be commended for their courage in publishing it it and calling it a "a valuable contribution that challenges the conventional vision that systems can design and organise themselves." They write, "The Journal hopes that the paper will promote the exchange of ideas in this important topic" -- showing that there is hope for true academic freedom on the debate over ID in some corners of the scientific community.

Posted by Casey Luskin on July 19, 2010 11:05 AM | Permalink

Barbara Forrest: You can't cloak La. Science Education Act's religious intent


July 18, 2010

In his June 26 response to Charles Kincade, the Rev. Gene Mills, executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), portrayed the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) as "landmark" legislation — a "bold step" to "promote critical thinking skills" in public school science classes.

Decrying "censorship over academic freedom," Mills credited "the courage of our policy writers" for Louisiana's "cutting-edge, beneficial law." He added that "the LSEA passed the Louisiana House of Representatives and Senate with near unanimous bipartisan support."

Of these assertions, only the last is consistent with the facts. The Legislature did pass the LSEA, but their doing so had nothing to do with courage. It had everything to do with Family Forum's aggressive lobbying and cultivating legislators for almost 10 years. Most important, the LFF finally got a governor, Bobby Jindal, who would sign a creationist bill. The fact that a largely new Legislature was scared to death of crossing Jindal made 2008 the right year for the LFF to strike.

Nor did "our policy writers" write the Louisiana Science Education Act, as Mills claims — unless one considers the LFF a policy writer, which is precisely the status that this organization enjoys under Bobby Jindal's administration.

The LFF announced on their website that they wrote the bill. They were assisted by the Discovery Institute (DI), a creationist think tank in Seattle that has hawked "intelligent design" for almost two decades. The LSEA is a variant of DI's creationist "Model Academic Freedom Statute," variants of which the Discovery Institute was peddling in six state legislatures in 2008, as it did again in 2009. Only Louisiana has enacted this piece of rubbish into law.

Denying that the Science Education Act permits teaching creationism, Rev. Mills asserted that the bill's prohibition of "discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion" was included at "LFF's insistence." However, religion disclaimers are an old creationist tactic.

The Science Education Act's disclaimer is part of DI's model bill and was included in all of the various state versions in 2008-2009. Such disclaimers were used in "creation science" legislation in the early 1980s. The act's disclaimer is merely a transparent, pre-emptive attempt at legal self-defense against the accusation that the LSEA promotes religion.

But legislation that is about real science education need not include religion disclaimers. Disclaimers are typically included in creationist laws, which are precisely about promoting religion. Moreover, only creationists complain, as Mills did, about "Darwinian dogma in our schools." As recently as October 2009, the LFF's Family Facts newsletter was bashing "evolutionist propaganda" while presenting "Design Theory" as reflecting "the text of the Bible."

Rev. Mills' denial that the LSEA is a creationist bill is also belied by the fact that the only people that the Louisiana Family Forum brought forward to testify for it were creationists, including a Discovery Institute operative. Only two groups promoted the LSEA: the LFF, which featured creationist materials on their website at the time the LSEA became law, and the Discovery Institute, whose chief project is hawking "intelligent design," which has been thoroughly documented as creationism — including in federal court. Public school science teachers did not request this law. On the contrary, they opposed it.

Finally, Mills' referring to public schools as "our schools" is sheer hypocrisy. Mills considers himself qualified to manipulate the education of other people's children in public schools to which he d oesn't send his own. In his 2008 Christmas newsletter, updating readers on his children's activities, he revealed that they don't attend public schools. They are home-schooled and attend a private Christian school. Yet this man is dictating educational policy.

For the truth about the creationist LSEA, see the Louisiana Coalition for Science website at http://lasciencecoalition.org.

Barbara Forrest is a Louisiana professor and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Center for Science Education.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Uh-oh. I think I've been naughty again.


Category: Godlessness
Posted on: July 16, 2010 8:52 PM, by PZ Myers

Michael Zimmerman, the guy behind the Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday, in which ministers are encouraged to endorse science and evolution, is unhappy with those danged New Atheists who refuse to support his efforts. Jerry Coyne excerpts Zimmerman's complaint.

Oddly enough, although these Clergy Letter Project members are often among the first to fight for all forms of creationism to be removed from our public schools and for evolution to be taught, they have also been relentlessly attacked by "New Atheists." The crux of these attacks seems to take two forms. In the first, clergy members are ridiculed simply for having religious faith. In the second, supposedly intelligent people pretend they are unable to distinguish these clergy members from the fundamentalists with whom they share very little theologically and they are then tarred with the brush of unthinking literalism.

Oooh, "relentlessly attacked". I like that. Funny thing is, though, that I've been kind of cranky about the Evolution Sunday nonsense for a few years, but have been disappointed to see very little other dissent from it. Even Coyne has said it's "harmless at worst". Who could be making these relentless attacks?

Maybe it's me. I've been hard-pressed to find anyone else who criticizes that Clergy Letter project, but I know I have. I did a search on my site and found four whole articles on the Clergy Project/Evolution Sunday, and it's true — I don't like it much at all. Here's the full history of my vicious mad-dog barking at Zimmerman.

Feb 2006: I say that I found it orthogonal to my views, but since I found fundies frothing at the mouth over it, I'll look on it charitably for a bit.

Feb 2007: A grudging acknowledgment of the event, but I suggest a better use of everyone's time would be to stay home and read a good book.

July 2007: I read some of the Evolution Sunday sermons. Gag a maggot, they're bad. Really, read some sometime — this is what happens when you invite scientifically ignorant people to pontificate on biology and pretend to have some authority…and they're always using their mangled version of evolution as a parable to urge greater faith in god.

Then there are a few years where I ignore them altogether.

Feb 2010: My strongest criticism yet, I mention that I despise the Clergy Project, and that they were sponsoring an awful debate in Minnesota between a nicey-nice but airheaded apologist for religion and a flaming young earth creationist.

That's it. I'd be interested in hearing if someone else has a more consistent and ferocious history of savaging the Clergy Letter Project/Evolution Sunday stuff. So I can shake their hand.

Relentlessness has a whole new meaning in the minds of the faithful. Kinda like "militant".

I knew this was coming


Category: Creationism
Posted on: July 17, 2010 10:21 AM, by PZ Myers

Remember that horrible, stupid, no-good article about chickens and eggs, the one that used the identification of a protein important in egg shell formation to claim chickens had to have come before eggs, with no comparative data, no appreciation of the logic of evolutionary theory, and absolutely no respect for the evidence? Yeah, that one. The article that ought to have embarrassed both the journalist and the scientist involved.

Well, somebody liked it. They liked it a lot. Guess who?

Ken Ham.

He likes it because he thinks it means that chickens couldn't have evolved, that their putative non-chicken ancestors wouldn't have been able to lay eggs, so his god had to have abracadabraed them into existence. Then he makes this prediction:

I wouldn't be surprised if atheist scientists will loudly complain that this study actually supports the creation account in Genesis and then try to attack the research.

No, we're complaining about this study because its interpretation was mangled beyond belief by the reporter and scientist. It says nothing about the ancestors of chickens or their closest relatives, and so can't really come to the conclusion that the protein examined appeared de novo in Gallus gallus. It can't support Genesis. It can't support anything, because it is bad science.

Physicists, brace yourselves for a revolution! Faster than light travel discovered!


Category: Creationism

Those slippery rascals at Answers in Genesis have been doing research, they say, and Jason Lisle claims to have discovered something radical.

I have been working for some time on solving the "distant starlight problem." This is the issue of how starlight from the most distant galaxies is able to reach earth within the biblical timescale. Although light is incredibly fast, the most distant galaxies are incredibly far away. So, under normal circumstances we would be inclined to think that it should take billions of years for their starlight to reach us. Yet, the Bible teaches that the universe is only thousands of years old. Solutions have been proposed by creationists, but we haven't had a definitive answer…until now.

It has taken a lot of time and effort, but I have found a solution to distant starlight which allows light to reach earth virtually instantaneously. Moreover, I have found both Scriptural and scientific support for this solution. This has led to the development of a new cosmological model which makes testable predictions. I have nearly finished writing a technical paper on this topic, which will shortly be sent to various experts for qualified peer-review. If it passes peer-review, we will publish the paper in the Answers Research Journal. This is our free, online journal. So be watching for it. If the paper gains the support of experts in the field, I may later write a non-technical article that summarizes the model.

Hang on there: virtually instantaneous travel from distant stars to the earth? This would constitute a rather substantial upheaval in our thinking about physics, I would think, and would be gigantic news. So why is he peddling it around to the tame friends of creationism for 'peer review'? Why is he aiming to publish in a bottom-of-the-barrel fake journal, which is little more than a propaganda broadsheet?

If he's really made this amazing breakthrough, he ought to be sending his technical paper to more prestigious journals, like Nature and Science and Physics Review Letters and Cosmopolitan. Publishing in Answers Research Journal is an admission of failure.

Oh, well, I'm willing to accept a diamond from a dungheap. Let's see this paper!

Pendulums to PK Earthquake!


Posted on July 16, 2010 by alainnu

A few days ago I visited Bob Jahn and Brenda Dunne at the ICRL in Princeton, NJ. They are the two main heads that form the International Consciousness Research Laboratory, and also the PEAR (Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research) Laboratory, and are considered two of the scientific front runners in the Mind/Matter interaction field.

I am quite interested in scientific anomalies, as my line of work is in trying to grasp the strange powers given to us by the universe, and reflect on what that means to make us more creative, wise, efficient and effective in our lives.

Having nothing to do with the ICRL in NJ, I'm also involved in a separate multiple week long privately funded scientific challenge to see if I can "mentally" cause a free-hanging pendulum in TX remotely from the east coast to swing inexplicably (more on the parameters of this experiment later).

After playing with some of the REG devices at Bob and Brenda's facility I came home inspired as I found I was able to control my ability with their devices in a particular way that offered an uncanny success rate with some of their tests and although my time spent playing with each of their experiments was limited, I found I felt like I developed some sort of an "understanding"(?).

So yesterday July 15, I experimented by testing my new remote interaction techniques with the TX pendulum at:

6:25am to about 6:50am
10:30am to 10:45am
12:25pm to 12:45pm
2:30pm to 2:40pm
3:30pm to 3:45pm
5:30pm to 5:55pm
7:15pm to 7:30pm
8:50pm to 9:05pm

My "new method" has to do simply with hearing music in my head that moves me emotionally while putting the intentional thought on the pendulum on "auto-pilot." I tried different styles of music each time to see if one worked better, fluctuating from actually listening to music to just hearing it in my head. The pendulum is monitored by security cameras, so I won't know if any of what I did was successful until much later after reporting when my interactions took place.

My last interaction was made just before falling asleep, a little after 9pm last night.

I awoke at about 4:30am this morning and by about 4:55am I set off to try a "midnight interaction" with my scientifically-assigned pendulum.

However, at 5:03am, it was still dark and I was meditating in the middle of my studio. Suddenly everything started rattling all around me, but I was tranced-out and my conscious mind was confused into believing that it was my subconscious synchronizing with a low flying plane from above. Then, the whole house shook, which literally shook me out of my trance. Confusing matters more, I suddenly saw flashlights shining in my window and grew quite concerned. Then I realized it was my wife, who was also awakened by the house shaking, looking for me. We both rationalized it to be an airplane until I JUST found out it was an actual 3.6 magnitude earthquake in Montgomery County, Maryland!

Could that have been me?

And more importantly, I wonder if the pendulum was affected in any way?

As of one week focusing on my pendulum in TX, no inexplicable activity has been noted as of yet. But meditating on a swinging a pendulum in TX only to experience an earthquake in Maryland was quite a shocker of a coincidence at 5am if you ask me!

The idiot cure



TV gurus offer quick 'natural' cures for everything ranging from alopecia to cancer. But everything natural is not necessarily harmless, say medical experts. Use these remedies with caution and be mindful of their ill-effects

MSarath could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the verdict of the biopsy conducted on a growth in his ribs five months ago. How could a healthy 40-something like him be struck by cancer?

So when a friend recommended an alternative medicine practitioner based in Mumbai, he jumped at the suggestion. This healer often advertised on the so- called wellness channels on television. But after a few months of experimenting with promises of a miracle cure, he was back at Bangalore's HCG Hospital. By then, the disease had spread through the body.

"Timely medical intervention in the form of surgery followed by chemotherapy could have shrunk the tumour," points out Dr Pramod Chinder, consultant orthooncologist at HCG Hospital. Sarath's life expectancy today is four to five years. If he had responded well to surgery, he may have lived for another 20.

TV remedies for everything, from hairfall and hepatitis to conjunctivitis and cancer, are accessible to millions of viewers 24x7. According to 2009 figures, these wellness channels do business to the tune of around Rs 60 crore annually. They are viewed by around 10 million. Most of these channels air health programmes that propagate alternative healing practices that promise "complete recovery with zero side effects".

"It is scary how some of these 'gurus' promise cures for even infectious diseases such as dengue and chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension," says Dr Sandeep Buddhiraja, director, institute of internal medicine, Max Healthcare.

Allopaths complain that patients often abandon treatment half-way to try out natural remedies. "We get patients who suffer from gastritis even as they are undergoing chemotherarpy. When we probe, we find that they have been taking ayurvedic medicine as well. These medicines contain mercuric salts, which can cause gastritis in certain cases," says Dr MS Belliappa, consultant radio-oncologist at the HCG Hospital.

TV doctors manage to put up a fairly convincing act. There are programmes where they use detailed diagrams and flow charts to explain why this juice or that powder or yoga on an empty stomach can help cure a disease.

However, the information imparted is usually half-baked. Viewers are rarely cautioned against the pitfalls of using natural remedies mindlessly. For instance, a popular TV yoga guru has for long propagated the goodness of bottle gourd-bitter gourd juice to stem diabetes. But few knew that the raw juice of these vegetables could prove to be toxic under certain conditions.

Last week, the absence of this crucial piece of information cost Delhi-based scientist Sushil Kumar his life. For four years Kumar had followed this popular remedy to keep his diabetes under control. Unfortunately for him, the last glass of lauki-karela juice he drank contained killer toxins.

Newspaper reports now say that many such incidents had been reported earlier from other parts of the country. In the absence of any legislation to monitor the content of these wellness channels, all kinds of untested tonics and pills are being hawked to millions of gullible viewers.

The world over, alternative medicines are becoming popular, but in India the problem is compounded by a unique factor. Says Dr Anoop Misra, director and head, department of diabetes and metabolic diseases, Fortis, "In India, religious issues add to the problem. People blindly follow their TV gurus. Alternative therapies are largely scientifically unproven. Most of these practices or formulae have been passed down the generations by wordof-mouth. Some have proved to be effective over a period of time, for instance, the Chinese remedy for malaria. But the effectiveness of most other such remedies remains questionable."

Aloe vera juice is another popular plant remedy. Its benefits include reduced inflammation and stronger immunity. Cans and bottles of this juice are easily available under various brands in the market. But the quality of their content is strongly suspect.

While the Indian Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 does govern the herbal medicine industry, it lays emphasis only on ensuring hygienic conditions in manufacturing units and the rigorous testing of raw material. But it mostly ignores critical factors such as the source of the raw material, the harvest and post-harvest conditions in the farms and fields, and the processing-manufacturing techniques. These need to be regulated as well.

In random surveys conducted by scientific bodies like the Centre for Science and Environment, it has been found that many of these brands may contain either too little or too much of the ingredients they claim to use. Plus, contraindications are not always mentioned on the labels of these concoctions.

"For instance, aloe vera juice is not advised for pregnant and lactating women. And the quantity of juice you consume is also important," says nutritionist Ishi Khosla. Similarly, senna leaf - a common natural remedy for constipation - if consumed carelessly can damage the kidneys. Wheatgrass juice is another popular remedy for detox. TV doctors often prescribe it for patients undergoing chemotherapy. This can prove to be a source of infection, though.

Exercise therapies shown on television too are leading to injuries and health problems. Dr IPS Oberoi, senior consultant orthopaedic surgeon Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon, says he regularly sees patients who have injured themselves while working out with a tele instructor. The spine, hip and calf muscles and the shoulders are most prone to such an injury.

Seema Sondhi, a Delhi-based yoga teacher, agrees with Oberoi. Her own mother-in-law has developed chronic backache after doing unsupervised yoga. "She would switch on the television, sit on the bed and start imitating the asanas being shown on the screen. Now, she is on painkillers and cannot move much," says Sondhi.

In another case, Chandigarh school teacher Rachna Nigam found her left knee swelling after she started working out with an aerobics DVD in order to knock off some extra kilos. "I went overboard with the intensity of the moves," says Nigam. Her doctor has put her on a course of anti-inflammatory medication and advised her not to climb stairs.

Like Nigam, many people fail to realise that before starting on a workout routine the body needs to be prepared for the physical activity. Warm-up exercises help you do that. "They also minimise the chances of an injury," says Oberoi. But tele instructors often miss out this crucial part. In fact, what adds to the risk of a sprain or tear of muscle or tissue is when people start following the exercise programmes immediately, without realising that, as beginners, they need to start with simpler exercises or asanas," explains Oberoi. If you are unfit and mindlessly ape the athletic instructors on TV, chances are that you will land up with a slip disc, swollen knees or chronic muscle pain.

Most people do not realise that yoga may seem simple but requires thorough supervision and guidance. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, which tracks sports injuries caused in exercise regimes that don't include equipment, nearly 4,500 people ended up in the emergency room after yoga injuries in 2006, slightly fewer than the year before but still up 18 per cent since 2004. In 2001, The New England Journal of Medicine published an article that cites yoga as one of the many possible causes of damage to arteries in susceptible patients.

Even breathing exercises when done with incorrect technique can lead to complications. Certain pranayamas are not recommended for patients of high blood pressure and kapalabhati (a form of intense breathing) is contraindicated in heart diseases.

A dangerous web

The personal computer is fast replacing the personal physician. The internet is littered with websites - both reliable and dubious - that offer everything you should know about your ailment - the symptoms, treatment, possible side effects, cost of treatment, testimonials, access to support groups and more.

Trustworthy websites like www.webmd.com and www.mayoclinic.com are referred to by millions around the world and offer interesting user options: a comprehensive list of the most commonly used drugs along with user reviews, and what to expect of different diagnostic and lab tests. If you are about to undergo a surgical procedure, you can find information about how long it will take, what the procedure entails, the duration of post-op care and possible side effects.

While these websites empower people to make informed decisions about their health, they also spawn pill poppers who self-medicate, often with serious outcomes. Abhay Arora was down with possible viral fever and a quick Google search revealed that a first generation antibiotic is the most effective cure. He did not bother with consulting a doctor and simply treated himself with an OTC antibiotic. He woke up the next morning with angry rashes all over his body - he had developed a drug allergy. Arora was lucky to get away with just a rash.

Self-medication can land you in serious trouble. But that does not stop people from taking chances with their health. After all a visit to a neighbourhood internet cafê costs much less than a visit to a doctor's clinic.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Evolution education update: July 16, 2010

Plenty of summer reading, with new content from Reports of the NCSE and a sample chapter from Nick Lane's Life Ascending now available on NCSE's website.


Selected content from volume 30, numbers 1-2, of Reports of the National Center for Science Education is now available on NCSE's website. Featured are NCSE executive director Eugenie C. Scott's analysis of the recent edition of the Origin of Species disfigured by a creationist introduction and Brian Regal's reaction to the unacknowledged use of his work in that introduction. Plus there are plenty of reviews of books -- on everything from the history of creationism to the scientific career of Stephen Jay Gould.

If you like what you see, why not subscribe to RNCSE today? The upcoming issue (volume 30, number 4) features paleontology, with Phil Senter explaining vestigial structures and with reviews of The Dawn Monkey, Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway, Darwin's Lost World, and The Genesis Enigma. Plus Randy Moore's "People & Places" column profiles J. Frank Norris -- arguably the most controversial figure in the evolution/creationism controversy ever. Don't miss out -- subscribe (or renew) today!

For the selected content from RNCSE 30:1-2, visit:

For subscription information, visit:


NCSE is pleased to offer a free preview of Nick Lane's Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution (W. W. Norton, 2009) -- featuring the chapter "Hot Blood: Breaking the Energy Barrier." Lane writes, "hot blood exacts a cruel toll. It spells a short life, spent eating dangerously. It depresses the population size and the number of offspring, two factors that should be penalised ruthlessly by natural selection. In recompense we have the boon of staying up at night and hanging out in the cold. That seems a poor deal, especially if we go to sleep anyway. Yet in the great pantheon of life, we routinely give top billing to the mammals and birds. What exactly is it that we have but the reptiles don't? It had better be good." The reviewer for Nature commented, "Excellent and imaginative and, similar to life itself, the book is full of surprises."

For the excerpt (PDF), visit:

For information about Life Ascending, visit:

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://ncse.com -- where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it.

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

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[Editor's note: Crocker's interview for the Washington Post is revealing.]

Eden and Evolution


Religious critics of evolution are wrong about its flaws. But are they right that it threatens belief in a loving God?

By Shankar Vedantam Sunday, February 5, 2006; W08

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid . . .

-- Isaiah 11:6

What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature.

-- Charles Darwin

Ricky Nguyen and Mariama Lowe never really believed in evolution to begin with. But as they took their seats in Room CC-121 at Northern Virginia Community College on November 2, they fully expected to hear what students usually hear in any Biology 101 class: that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was true.

As professor Caroline Crocker took the lectern, Nguyen sat in the back of the class of 60 students, Lowe in the front. Crocker, who wore a light brown sweater and slacks, flashed a slide showing a cartoon of a cheerful monkey eating a banana. An arrow led from the monkey to a photograph of an exceptionally unattractive man sitting in his underwear on a couch. Above the arrow was a question mark.

Crocker was about to establish a small beachhead for an insurgency that ultimately aims to topple Darwin's view that humans and apes are distant cousins. The lecture she was to deliver had caused her to lose a job at a previous university, she told me earlier, and she was taking a risk by delivering it again. As a nontenured professor, she had little institutional protection. But this highly trained biologist wanted students to know what she herself deeply believed: that the scientific establishment was perpetrating fraud, hunting down critics of evolution to ruin them and disguising an atheistic view of life in the garb of science.

It took a while for Nguyen, Lowe and the other students to realize what they were hearing. Some took notes; others doodled distractedly. Crocker brought up a new slide. She told the students there were two kinds of evolution: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution is easily seen in any microbiology lab. Grow bacteria in a petri dish; destroy half with penicillin; and allow the remainder to repopulate the dish. The new generation of bacteria, descendants of survivors, will better withstand the drug the next time. That's because they are likely to have the chance mutations that allow some bacteria to defend themselves against penicillin. Over multiple cycles, increasingly resistant strains can become impervious to the drug, and the mutations can become standard issue throughout the bacterial population. A new, resistant strain of bacteria would have evolved. While such small changes are well established, Crocker said, they are quite different from macroevolution. No one has ever seen a dog turn into a cat in a laboratory.

The students leaned forward. They were starting to realize that this was unconventional material for a biology class. Many scientists, Crocker added, believe that complex life reveals the hand of an intelligent designer. The theory of intelligent design holds that while the evolutionary forces of random genetic mutation and natural selection may shape species on a small scale, they cannot account for the kind of large-scale differences between, say, chimpanzees and humans. Only some form of intelligence -- most people read that phrase as "God" -- could have accounted for the origin of life from nonliving matter, or the existence of complex structures within cells and organisms that rely on many parts functioning together. While many advocates of the theory of intelligent design, including Crocker, are religious, some are not. What unites these advocates is not religion but the belief that supernatural forces are active in everyday life. Science, they say, fails to see the true nature of the world when it refuses to admit anything other than material evidence. Crocker believes that biological systems cannot grow more complex on their own any more than a novel, through chance typographical errors, can turn into a different book, with a different story. How could anyone think that new books get written because of typos in old books?

Ripples of excitement spread through the class. Crocker took the students on a tour of experiments that she said were supposed to prove evolution. In the 1950s, she said, scientists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey ran electricity through a soup of chemicals to show how chemicals on the early Earth could assemble themselves into the building blocks of life.

"Anyone read about it?" she asked.

"It's in our book," a student said.

Crocker said that subsequent research had shown that chemicals used in the experiment did not exist on Earth 4 billion years ago. "The experiment is irrelevant, but you still find it in your books," she said.

She cited another experiment, involving researcher Bernard Kettlewell, who produced pictures of variously colored peppered moths on tree trunks to show that when the moths were not well camouflaged, they were more likely to be eaten by birds -- a process of natural selection that influenced the color of the moths. "This comes from your book -- it is not actually true," Crocker said. "The experiment was falsified. He glued his moths to the trees."

Gasps and giggles burst out. Why was the experiment still in the textbook? Crocker said the authors' answer was, "because it makes the point . . . The problem with evolution is that it is all supposition -- this evolved into this -- but there is no evidence."

The students sat stunned. But Crocker was not done. From this ill-conceived theory, she concluded, much harm had arisen. Nazi Germany had taken Darwin's ideas about natural selection, the credo that only the fittest survive, and followed it to its extreme conclusions -- anti-Semitism, eugenics and death camps. "What happened in Germany in World War II was based on science, that some genes and some people should be killed," Crocker said quietly. "My grandfather had a genetic problem and was put in the hospital and killed."

Nguyen was among the first students to speak. "With so many things disproving evolution and evolution having no proof, why is it still taught?" he asked.

"Right now, in our society, we have an underlying philosophy of naturalism, that there is a material explanation for everything," Crocker replied. "Evolution came with that philosophy."

Carolyn Flitcroft, a student in one of the front rows, said: "So far, we have only learned that evolution is true. This is the first time I have ever heard it isn't."

"I lost my job at George Mason University for teaching the problems with evolution," said Crocker, a charge that the university denies. "Lots of scientists question evolution, but they would lose their jobs if they spoke out."

As more students began to speak, many expressed what were clearly long-held doubts about evolution. Nguyen said later that Crocker had merely provided evidence for what he had always suspected.

When Lowe finally spoke, it seemed as if the lecture had lifted a load from her shoulders. "I believe in creationism, I believe in intelligent design," she declared to the class. Humans have souls, which make them different from other animals, she told me later. To believe in evolution meant that "after you are dead, you are done." Without the accountability of Judgment Day and Hell, why would people follow the Ten Commandments?

A woman in the back of the class raised her hand. Her voice shook with emotion. "If science is the pursuit of truth, why is evolution not questioned?"

"I've heard scientists say people won't understand, so they should be told only one side," Crocker replied.

There was a long moment of silence. Finally the student said, "Isn't that lying to the public?"

Crocker declined to answer the question, but someone else grimly observed, "Won't be the first time."

I went up to this last student after the class. She initially agreed to be identified, but moments later, remembering what Crocker had said about the scientific establishment's intolerance of dissent, she begged me not to publish her name. The fear on her face was palpable. She wanted to be a veterinarian and was convinced that dream would be smashed if powerful scientists learned she had dared to question evolution.

Before the class, Crocker had told me that she was going to teach "the strengths and weaknesses of evolution." Afterward, I asked her whether she was going to discuss the evidence for evolution in another class. She said no.

"There really is not a lot of evidence for evolution," Crocker said. Besides, she added, she saw her role as trying to balance the "ad nauseum" pro-evolution accounts that students had long been force-fed.

Late last fall, Crocker debated Alan Leshner, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The audience was a group of seventh-grade students at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in Falls Church. Leshner will not debate opponents of evolution in person, and he will not debate them in a science class, because the science association believes that such events convey a false sense to the public that there really exists a scientific controversy over evolution. As a result, Leshner and Crocker spoke to a debating class on consecutive weeks.

The theory of evolution, Leshner announced to the students, was as firmly established as the theory of gravity. That didn't mean it couldn't be disproved, just that no one had ever done so -- or even raised any significant doubts. Leshner grabbed a set of papers and books. If the theory of gravitation still held true, it predicted with very high probability that the bundle would fall. He let go, and the papers and books landed with a thud.

"Whew!" he quipped. "That's a relief."

Evolutionary theory, Leshner explained, does the same thing. It explains and makes predictions about the living world that hold up. Even though Darwin's theory predated -- by a century -- the discovery of DNA and a scientific understanding of the role of genes in heredity, the more science learns, the more the living world looks exactly like what would be expected if evolution were true. All living things are built from the same genetic toolbox, and species that evolution predicts are closely related share more genetic material than those that evolution says are far apart. Humans and chimps, for example, share 96 percent of their DNA sequence. Intelligent design's argument that evolution cannot explain the origin of astoundingly complex biological systems such as the flagellum of bacteria -- the microscopic, whiplike propulsion system with multiple interdependent parts -- is indistinguishable, Leshner said, from the bland assertion that science has not explained everything. Unexplained, however, is not the same as unexplainable. When ID advocates see something unexplained, they point to the supernatural. But science, by definition, looks only for natural explanations, Leshner said.

"For all I know, there was an intelligent designer, but science can't answer the question," Leshner told the students.

Crocker's arguments are part of a familiar litany of half-truths and errors, said Alan Gishlick, a research affiliate at the National Center for Science Education. The Miller-Urey experiment was not intended to be evidence for evolution but part of a research program into how biological mechanisms might arise from nonbiological chemical reactions. As for gluing moths to trees, Gishlick said, researcher Kettlewell affixed the moths to trees to determine how birds spot moths of different hues. The photos were illustrations and never meant to be depictions of real life.

"They put us in a position that we have to defend things that don't need defending, and then they come back and say, Why are you defending things that we know are wrong?" Gishlick told me, his voice rising.

While critics of evolution point to gaps in the fossil record -- asking, for instance, why no fossils of intermediary species exist between land mammals and sea mammals -- new discoveries regularly fill those holes. By 1994, observed Brown University biologist Ken Miller, scientists unearthed fossils of animals near the Indian subcontinent that had front and hind limbs capable of walking on land and flippering through water.

Why have such examples failed to convince doubters? Over many months of interviews about intelligent design, I gradually came to realize that evolution's advocates and critics are mostly talking about different things. While the controversy over intelligent design is superficially about scientific facts, the real debate is more emotional. Evolution cuts to the heart of the belief that humans have a special place in creation. If all things in the living world exist solely because of evolutionary competition and natural selection, what room is left for the idea that humans are made in God's image or for any morality beyond the naked requirements of survival? Beneath all the complex arguments of intelligent design advocates, Georgetown theologian John Haught agreed, "there lies a deeply human and passionately religious concern about whether the universe resides in the bosom of a loving, caring God or is instead perched over an abyss of ultimate meaninglessness."

If intelligent design advocates have generally been blind to the overwhelming evidence for evolution, scientists have generally been deaf to concerns about evolution's implications.

At a news conference last year to mark the start of a trial in Dover, Pa., where parents had sued a school board for trying to introduce intelligent design into curricula, Leshner's science association and Gishlick's science education center repeatedly argued that evolution has no moral implications. They insisted that science and religion could coexist easily and pointed out that many scientists who accept evolution are religious.

Many religious conservatives believe the assertion that science and religion occupy separate, non-conflicting spheres is a smokescreen, a convenient way for religious liberals to brush conflict under the carpet. That may be why Leshner's diplomatic views are rarely mentioned by critics of evolution. And it is also why a 64-year-old biologist in England has come to occupy an outsize role in one of America's oldest culture wars. No matter the forum, location or theme, any debate about intelligent design or evolution will sooner or later invoke the name of Richard Dawkins.

"Anyone who chooses not to believe in evolution is ignorant, stupid or insane," said Dawkins, professor of public understanding of science at Oxford University.

Dawkins was sitting in his Victorian Gothic home in North Oxford. The house boasts high ceilings and beautiful views of the garden, and, from this sanctuary, Dawkins has penned some of the world's best-known prose in praise of Darwin's theory of evolution. Among religious people, Dawkins is known primarily not for his science but for his militant views on evolution's implications, especially as they pertain to religion in general and Christianity in particular. What beneficent creator, Darwin himself asked after his voyage of discovery to the Galapagos Islands in South America, would permit the sort of suffering so widespread in nature? "The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical," agreed the American philosopher David Hull, writing in the scientific journal Nature. "He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray."

Dawkins first shot to fame with his bestselling book, The Selfish Gene, published in 1975, which laid out the idea that animals -- humans included -- are essentially survival machines for genes. Individual animals die, and whole species may go extinct, but an unbroken genetic line connects every living thing on Earth. In the three decades since he wrote that book, Dawkins has seen his ideas become textbook orthodoxy, even as the notion of selfish genes has grown controversial among nonscientists. Even his wife, the biologist noted, once said, "Selfish genes are Frankensteins, and all life their monster."

It occurred to me as I listened to Dawkins that there is a parallel between the public's fear of selfish genes and the blockbuster science fiction movie "The Matrix," where highly sophisticated robots take over the world: Humans in the movie do not realize they are circumscribed by unseen rules and artificial parameters; they believe they are free, when in fact they are serving the robots. Genes, Dawkins asserted, behave much like these robots, with some differences. While the robots are malevolent and manipulative, genes lack conscious intention. The "selfishness" of genes is only a metaphor. Nor are genes purely deterministic. Behavior, especially at the level of humans, is complex, and leaves much room for learning and culture. Humans can also outsmart their genetic commanders -- contraceptives, for example, have disentangled the genetic lure of sexual pleasure from the genetic goal of procreation. Still, one implication of neo-Darwinian ideas is that even when people believe they are acting autonomously, they may really only be obeying the distant tugs of genes.

Dawkins's refusal to blunt the sharp implications of evolutionary theory places him at ground zero in debates about evolution. For doubters of Darwin, Dawkins has become the poster boy of how evolutionary ideas lead -- inevitably, many religious people believe -- to atheism. I asked Dawkins about his propensity to rub religious people the wrong way.

"I honestly think it comes from being clear," he said. "Some people can't bear clarity . . . to say someone is ignorant is not insulting. I'm ignorant of baseball, and I wouldn't be insulted if someone said, 'You don't know what you are talking about.' Anyone who thinks the world is 10,000 years old doesn't know anything about the world."

Dawkins told me that the idea that science and religion occupy separate spheres doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Every miracle in the Bible, from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection, tramples on what Dawkins calls the scientific grass. "Politically, it's expedient to pretend there is no conflict," he told me. "What I care about is what's true, not what's politically expedient."

And evolutionary science has a great deal to say about ethics and morality, Dawkins said. Being "pro-life in debates on abortion or stem cell research always means pro-human life, for no sensibly articulated reason," he once wrote. The fact that humans think of themselves as altogether distinct from other animals -- and the biblical notion that humans have dominion over other animals -- is a sort of racism, Dawkins said. Evolution shows that fox hunters and bullfighters are tormenting their own distant cousins, which is why the biologist sends money to anti-bullfighting groups in Spain, and why he notes with pride that fox hunting was banned on the family farm. "The melancholy fact," Dawkins wrote in an essay called "Gaps in the Mind," "is that, at present, society's moral attitudes rest almost entirely on the . . . speciesist imperative."

Darwinian ideas about natural selection are also freighted with moral import because they show that nature, while spectacularly beautiful and ingenious, requires prodigious amounts of ruthlessness and suffering to achieve its ends. The grace of the cheetah, the beauty of a butterfly's wings and the complexity of the human brain were all achieved by the same general process that allows bacteria to evolve into a resistant strain -- they required the death of those less quick, less strong and less smart.

"The sheer amount of suffering in the world that is the direct result of natural selection is beyond contemplation," Dawkins told me. He recently published a collection of essays called A Devil's Chaplain, drawing on a phrase Darwin employed to describe the indifferent cruelty of nature, where wasps paralyze caterpillars segment by segment so their larvae may feed on living meat: "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature." But in response to his wife's suggestion that Frankenstein-like selfish genes have created living monsters, Dawkins believes that, alone on Earth, human beings can rebel against the mechanistic indifference of nature. Understanding the pitiless ways of natural selection is precisely what can make humans moral, Dawkins said. It is human agency, human rationality and human law that can create a world more compassionate than nature, not a religious view that falsely sees the universe as fundamentally good and benevolent. That is why, Dawkins said, he donates to disaster relief efforts -- work that is "un-Darwinian" -- and why he is a stickler for human laws, even the unimportant ones: When riding his bicycle, he stops at red lights even when there are no traffic and police officers present.

"I am a passionate Darwinian when it comes to explaining how things are, but I am an even more passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics," said Dawkins, who comes close to describing himself as a pacifist. "Let us understand Darwinism so we can walk in the opposite direction when it comes to setting up society."

Moral implications have attended Darwin's theory from the beginning. The arrow that points to the past, to the origin of human beings, also points in the other direction -- to human purpose and meaning.

"Moral concerns are exactly what most people who are concerned about Darwinism in the classroom are concerned about," said Russell Moore, dean of the theology school at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. "They may not articulate it in the same way, but most Americans fear a world in which everything is reduced to biology."

David Masci, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, who helped conduct a recent poll that found only about 1 in 4 Americans believes that humans came about through evolution alone, said that many Christians are disturbed by the Darwinian notion that human beings, far from being the point of creation, are essentially an accident: "But for a different mutation here or there, or if an asteroid had not hit the Earth 65 million years ago, none of who we are would have happened."

Some religious scientists have argued that evolution is consistent with a God who sets the world in motion and then leaves it to function according to fixed laws, or that the evolution of intelligent life reveals a divine plan for the emergence of creatures capable of recognizing God. However, those ideas of a distant designer are at odds with the notion of a loving God who regularly intervenes in the world to lift the burdens of the faithful. "There are a lot of forms of Christianity that are not compatible with Darwinism," said Richard Weikart, a professor of history at California State University in Stanislaus and the author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany.

Weikart, who is also a research fellow at the Discovery Institute, the chief proponent of intelligent design in the United States, said Darwinism advanced the cause not of immorality, but amorality. As evidence, he pointed to the work of evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists who have applied Darwin's ideas to human behavior and society and who have concluded that the same processes of natural selection that gave rise to eyes, hands and legs also produce emotions and behavior -- even morality. Reduced to the Darwinian arithmetic of natural selection, emotions are neither good nor bad but merely appendages, such as wings or hands, selfishly designed by genes for their own survival. The distant tugs of genes may give rise to altruism, love and compassion, not just to selfishness and hatred, but that means human assertions about good and evil are just that, notions that humans impose on an indifferent universe, instead of absolute law. It would be as if human beings invented God, rather than the other way around.

"It may be difficult," Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, "but we ought to admire the savage instinctive hatred of the queen-bee, which urges her to destroy the young queens, her daughters, as soon as they are born, or to perish herself in the combat; for undoubtedly this is for the good of the community; and maternal love or maternal hatred, though the latter fortunately is most rare, is all the same to the inexorable principles of natural selection."

If humans descended from animals, Weikart argued, no one could assert that humans ought to behave in qualitatively different ways from animals. And whatever Dawkins may say about humans choosing to turn their back on survival-of-the-fittest mentality, Weikart said, evolutionary ideas make the opposite more likely. "Eugenics would have had a difficult time getting off the ground without Darwinism," he said.

Evolutionists abhor that assertion, but social Darwinism goes right back to Darwin himself. In The Descent of Man, Darwin noted that it was "highly injurious to the race of man" that civilized nations care for and keep alive "the imbecile, the maimed and the sick." And while natural selection ascribes no particular value to any trait or race -- fitness is merely how well an organism adapts to its environment -- the naturalist reflected the prejudices of his time, 19th-century colonial Britain, when he quoted others who worried that the "careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman" and the "inferior" Celt usually multiply faster than the "frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious" Scot and the Saxon. Darwin believed society would be aided by "the weak in body and mind refraining from marriage."

In fairness, Darwin mostly refrained from extrapolating natural selection to human society. And he abhorred slavery at a time when many justified it as the natural order of things. Yet, it is unquestionably true that Darwinian ideas have been easily appropriated by advocates with axes to grind. In his own day, Darwin's research was eagerly seized upon by Thomas Henry Huxley, who used evolutionary ideas to cudgel religion.

"Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules," Huxley declared in an 1860 essay about The Origin of Species. "And history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter have been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed, if not annihilated."

In the caverns of the University of Cambridge, among darkened library stacks, Alison Pearn opened a small box. Inside were red, leather-bound notebooks, 3 inches by 6 inches, held shut with a metal clasp. The notebooks belonged to Darwin, and the ones we were examining reflected his notes on how evolutionary processes may explain the development of emotions. Lacking the tools of modern neuroscience, the naturalist studied animals, got nieces to monitor pets and even asked the parents of newborns to report to him on their crying babies.

On adjoining shelves that form the basis of the Darwin Correspondence Project, a massive effort by Pearn and her colleagues to collate the private letters and musings of evolution's prime theorist, yellowing sheets bore diary entries from Darwin's travels to South America on the HMS Beagle. Pearn delicately lifted pages of the notebooks with both hands; pens and ink of any sort were forbidden in the library area. As I examined the notebooks, I saw that Darwin's handwriting was spidery and bore idiosyncratic little ticks above his W's.

The origin of the moral conflicts over evolution goes back to those notebooks. They help explain why Darwin held his tongue for 20 years between his voyage and his publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. Realizing the religious and moral implications of his work, Darwin told a friend, was "like confessing a murder."

"The Origin of Species for people was a bombshell," said Darwin biographer James Moore. "It went off like a terrorist attack on the intellectual establishment."

Moore is a philosopher of science at the University of Cambridge, a visiting scholar at Harvard University and a co-author of Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. I spoke with him at Cambridge last year, on the sidelines of a fellowship I was attending organized by the university and the John Templeton Foundation, which seeks to build bridges between science and religion. The foundation is critical of intelligent design for discounting abundant scientific evidence but has offered forums for advocates and critics of the theory to debate one another.

Darwin himself studied at Cambridge, where he showed the same curiosity about the natural world that would mark the rest of his life. For instance, no pursuit at Cambridge, Darwin noted in his brief autobiography, gave him more pleasure than collecting beetles. On one occasion, having peeled back the bark on a tree, Darwin spotted two rare beetles. Eagerly he scooped them up in either hand. At that very moment, he spied a third beetle, which he could not bear to lose. "I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth," Darwin wrote. "Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one."

Like many educated men of his time, Darwin planned to become an Anglican clergyman. When an opportunity arose to become a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, he set out expecting "to see God's magnificence manifested in nature," Moore said. Throughout the voyage, there is evidence Darwin held closely to his faith, to the point that he was teased for being such a keen believer, said Thomas Dixon, a historian at Lancaster University in England. That faith endured as Darwin was writing The Origin of Species, and it was eventually shaken less by his scientific findings than by a personal tragedy that caused Darwin to reject the existence of a Christian God who was loving and good.

At one point in Darwin's voyage to South America, Moore told me, the naturalist stopped in Brazil, where his blood ran cold to see slaves in manacles being tortured by Catholic traders. Darwin was enraged as a Christian, but also as a scientist, because he recognized that the slave trade relied on the false notion that slaves were a different, inferior and exploitable species. Upon his return to England, Darwin extended the idea to the way people treated animals, an early precursor to Dawkins's argument about speciesism. "To say man is the pinnacle of creation and all things were created for him . . . Darwin says that is the same arrogance we see in the slave master," said Moore. Quoting Darwin, he added that it is "more humble and I believe true to see man created from animals -- because that makes us netted together in the web of life."

Assembling and collating the staggering range of observations he made during his travels about plants, insects and animals, and drawing insights from geology and embryology, Darwin set about his argument. He realized it was going to be controversial, but far from being anti-religious, Moore said, Darwin saw evolution as evidence of an orderly, Christian God. While his findings contradicted literal interpretations of the Bible and the special place that human beings have in creation, Darwin believed he was showing something even more grand -- that God's hand was present in all living things.

"He is not degrading man," Moore told me. "He is bringing up the rest of creation."

But Darwin's religious worldview was shaken after the death of a beloved daughter in 1851, when he was unable to reconcile the death to God's will. Moore said Darwin determined that "yes, there is a God; yes, he governs by law, but the tragic consequence of these laws is that the very old and very young go out of existence . . .

"It was the personally providential Christian god that he gives up," Moore said. "He [still] believes in the power of God, but this is not the Lord and father of Jesus Christ."

Darwin's dilemma reverberates to this day: The basic tenet of all religions is that everything will work out in the end, said John Green, who studies religion and science at the University of Akron. In an indifferent universe, however, "everything is not going to turn out okay in the end."

While Dawkins believes that Darwin referred to "the Creator" in his book merely to assuage religious critics, Moore and Alison Pearn said it was a true reflection of Darwin's beliefs.

"Darwin stared deeply into the naked face of nature without a God, and I don't believe he could accept what he saw -- that there was just this natural machine," said Moore. The machine, Darwin eventually concluded, was the way God brought complex life into existence. This idea of a distant designer who sets creation in motion and then does not interfere with it is embraced today by many religious scientists.

"There is grandeur in this view of life," Darwin insisted in the conclusion to The Origin of Species. From simple beginnings "breathed by the Creator" the naturalist wrote, "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

Eighteen Christians filed into the chapel of Truro Church in Fairfax. It was a sunny fall morning, and the group had shown up to listen to a different kind of sermon: Paul Julienne was giving a lecture on science and faith. Julienne is a physicist for the federal government and a believer.

"When people argue that science proves there is no God, they are taking a step beyond the science," said Julienne. "If I have a criticism of intelligent design, it is that . . . natural theology is not the way one comes to understand God. God loves us. We're not accidents. There is purpose. You don't have to snap at Darwin at the heels."

Julienne reflects two curious facets of the debate over intelligent design. The first is that while physicists were the original source of science's conflict with the church, Christians by and large seem to have made their peace with physicists. Passages in Genesis about Earth's central location in the universe are contradicted by astronomy, but battles between science and Christianity today are almost entirely over biology. In part, said Richard Potts, a biologist who studies human origins at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, this is because evolution requires a comprehension of enormous amounts of time; by contrast, telescopes have made Earth's peripheral location in the cosmos obvious. But there is another reason. With the advent of quantum mechanics, physicists have come to believe that there are things about the universe that are not only unknown but unknowable. Biologists, by contrast, are far more likely to be reductionists, who believe all phenomena are explainable.

Julienne's criticism of intelligent design echoes the concern of many people who are worried not about the consequences of intelligent design to science but about its consequences to faith. Brown University's Ken Miller, a devout Catholic, noted in his book Finding Darwin's God: "If a lack of scientific explanation is proof of God's existence, the counterlogic is unimpeachable: A successful scientific explanation is an argument against God. That's why this reasoning, ultimately, is much more dangerous to religion than it is to science."

Why have intelligent design advocates sought to conduct the debate on scientific grounds -- seeking to undermine the validity of evolutionary theory, while studiously avoiding mention of God or morality? In part, several historians said, this reflects the growing hegemony of science in a society where arguments need to be seen as scientific for them to carry weight.

Ronald Numbers, a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied Darwinism and creationism, contends that a focus on evolution was also the only way to get creationists to set aside their own disagreements. Different groups, he told me, disagree over whether the world was literally created in seven days, as described in Genesis, whether those seven days were a metaphorical way to refer to seven epochs, or whether there were large, undocumented gaps of time between the days.

"There are three camps just within the creationists," said Numbers. "The intelligent design people say, let's set aside these quibbles, and let's focus on evolution. They want to create a big tent with all the anti-evolutionists."

While creationism in general has moved ever closer to scientific language in its various incarnations over the past century, Lancaster University historian Thomas Dixon noted that the modern debate over intelligent design -- largely an American phenomenon -- is really about neither science nor religion, but the American constitution, which has kept religion out of schools. The intelligent design movement, he said, is simply a reaction to this prohibition, which does not exist in Britain.

Given that so many scientists and religious people believe the theory does disservice to both science and religion, Dixon said, "a solution to this may be to have schools teach religion. Let them teach Christianity and everything else. It may be a complete and utter revolution in American history, but I'm saying it's a good idea."

Sitting in the pews of the church the morning I heard Paul Julienne was Caroline Crocker, the biology professor whom I had watched teach a few days earlier. I asked Crocker what she made of Julienne's assertions about intelligent design.

"I agree it makes for weak theology," she said.

But Crocker was reluctant to say much more. In fact, she seemed reluctant to be speaking to a reporter at all. She asked if I had seen the e-mail she had sent me the previous day; I had not. In it, she described the attacks targeted at her career as a result of her views on evolution. Losing the faculty position at GMU had left Crocker worried about how she could support a son at school in England. Family members were asking why she was sticking her neck out. Crocker and her husband, Richard, who is associate rector at Truro, believe she has become the victim of scientific authoritarianism. It is one thing to believe his wife is wrong, Richard Crocker told me, and quite another to deprive her of her right to speak.

GMU spokesman Daniel Walsch denied that the school had fired Crocker. She was a part-time faculty member, he said, and was let go at the end of her contract period for reasons unrelated to her views on intelligent design. "We wholeheartedly support academic freedom," he said. But teachers also have a responsibility to stick to subjects they were hired to teach, he added, and intelligent design belonged in a religion class, not biology. Does academic freedom "literally give you the right to talk about anything, whether it has anything to do with the subject matter or not? The answer is no."

Crocker said she came to her views on evolution not because of her religious faith but while working on a PhD in biology, when she learned about the complexity of the cell and the immune system. When I asked her what she made of the extraordinary genetic relatedness of living things, Crocker said she saw it as consistent with the hand of a creator, who uses the same palette of DNA to build protozoa, pandas and people.

The sense that the scientific establishment is intolerant of dissent has become common wisdom among intelligent design advocates. Many are convinced the fight should be left to tenured professors, such as biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the author of the anti-evolution tome Darwin's Black Box, and to professionals at the Discovery Institute.

"She is really brave for it, but I felt bad that her contract wasn't renewed," said Irene Fanous Kamel, a student who took Crocker's class at GMU and whose orthodox Coptic Christian family hails from Egypt. Kamel, who recently presented her own sympathetic views on intelligent design at a seminar, said she heard exasperated sighs from professors. In private, however, many students said they agreed with her. Kamel said she "would be very surprised to find another teacher talk about ID in class, unless they have tenure. It's not welcome."

An unintended consequence of the scientific establishment's exasperation with evolution's critics is that supporters of intelligent design such as Crocker and Kamel are increasingly limiting their conversations to fellow sympathizers. Among themselves, these advocates believe the wheel has turned full circle: If Galileo and Copernicus were the scientific rebels who were once punished by the dogma and authority of the church, these advocates now believe that they are being punished by the dogma and authority of science.

"Just like they say you can't discriminate against black people, or against gays, maybe they will say you can't discriminate against Darwin-doubters," Crocker told me.

The personal flavor of the fight over intelligent design has been exacerbated by the political contours of the debate in the United States, where many backers of evolution fear the Christian right is seeking to impose its views on a secular nation, while religious people feel they are held in contempt by intellectuals. In an increasingly partisan atmosphere, advocates have begun to treat opponents -- and not just ideas -- as fair game.

Nancey Murphy, a religious scholar at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said she faced a campaign to get her fired because she expressed the view that intelligent design was not only poor theology, but "so stupid, I don't want to give them my time."

Murphy, who believes in evolution, said she had to fight to keep her job after one of the founding members of the intelligent design movement, legal theorist Phillip Johnson, called a trustee at the seminary and tried to get her fired.

"His tactic has always been to fight dirty when anyone attacks his ideas," she said. "For a long time afterward, I would tell reporters I don't want to comment, and I don't want you to say I don't want to comment. I'm tired of being careful."

Johnson denied he had tried to get Murphy fired. He said that he had spoken with a former trustee of the seminary who was himself upset with Murphy but that he was not responsible for any action taken against her. "It's the Darwinists who hold the power in academia and who threaten the professional status and livelihoods of anyone who disagrees," Johnson said. "They feel to teach anything but their orthodoxy is an act of professional treason."

The odd thing is that while religious people are striving to sound like scientists, some scientists are starting to sound like religious advocates, Cambridge cosmologist John Barrow warned. "In doing science, one should be careful about wanting your theory to be true," he said. "This is a big difference between science and religion. If you have a religious theory, you have to want the theory to be true."

And it was exactly the kind of fight that Darwin abhorred, said Alison Pearn, the historian at the Darwin Correspondence Project. Although the naturalist's extraordinary scholarship entitled him to strong views, Pearn said Darwin always reached out to people with different opinions. In his books, he strove mightily to represent the best arguments against his own theory, a fair-mindedness that has sometimes been abused by critics who selectively use quotes to suggest the naturalist himself had doubts. Pearn said Darwin welcomed debate because he believed that, eventually, the better ideas would win.

"The question is whether other people must be made to believe what you believe," she said. If Darwin were alive today, she added, "Dawkins would have been goading him to say something, and he would have found a way to politely get out of it."

A wealth of studies in recent years have suggested the benefits of faith and religious community for mental and physical health -- potential markers, in Darwinian terms, of evolutionary success. Given that traditional people tend to have larger families, and that the doubters of natural selection are more likely than not to be religious traditionalists, I asked Dawkins whether natural selection may favor those who don't believe in it.

Dawkins said he thought the scientific evidence on the benefits of religion was equivocal. Still, he said: "That's an interesting suggestion that natural selection may favor those who do not believe in natural selection. It might be true."

Religious scientists and philosophers who believe Darwin is right on evolution are striving to reconcile the implications of evolution with their faith. Theologian John Haught argued that a loving God can be reconciled with the suffering inherent in evolution because divine love implies freedom, and freedom implies the possibility of suffering. John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge physicist and clergyman, wrote that the world's suffering is redeemed when God suffers along with creation: ". . . the Christian God is the Crucified God, not just a compassionate spectator of the travail of creation, but also truly 'a fellow sufferer who understands.'"

While evolutionary ideas may coexist better with Eastern religious traditions that do not emphasize the active, involved God of Christianity, there are still obstacles. When asked about Buddhist views on evolution at a recent meeting in Washington, the Dalai Lama said the theory failed to account for the idea of karma, the ledger of reward and punishment carried over from life to life.

Peter Lipton, a University of Cambridge historian and philosopher, said the only way he has found to reconcile the factual evidence for evolution with religious faith is to think of religious texts as novels, texts in which believers can emotionally immerse themselves, while still knowing, at another level, that the truth claims being made are not literally true.

Russell Stannard, a religious physicist and the British director of the fellowship where Lipton spoke to a group of journalists, bristled at the idea. "I can't see how a Christian can approach the New Testament as a novel," he said. "Whether there is a Resurrection or not is not the stuff of novels -- it is supposed to be historical fact."

"Maybe I am asking less of religion than you are," Lipton replied. "Think of all the worldly benefits you derive from religion -- they are benefits that might or might not be divinely caused. I get those benefits; I don't think they are divinely caused."

I asked Lipton whether he was trying to have his cake and eat it, too. He admitted he was: "Here I am in a synagogue on a Saturday morning, and I say the prayers and say all these things to God and engage with God, and yet I don't believe God exists. As I am saying that prayer, I recognize it as being a statement to God. I understand it literally, and it has meaning because of the human sentiments it expresses. I am standing saying this prayer that my ancestors said, with feeling and intention, those things are moving to me. What I am saying is, maybe that is enough."

Shankar Vedantam writes about science and human behavior for The Post. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

[Editor's note: Nothing says more about the Intelligent Design movement than their propaganda. Enjoy the following.]

Free to Think: Caroline Crocker's New Book Tells Story of Discrimination Against Intelligent Design


While Chris Comer's lawsuit made a bogus case for discrimination, there are cases documenting genuine discrimination—against scientists who support intelligent design (ID). One of those incidents took place at George Mason University (GMU), where Caroline Crocker was ousted from teaching biology because she challenged to neo-Darwinian evolution and favorably mentioned ID in the classroom. Dr. Crocker later appeared in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, but now many more details about Caroline Crocker's story are revealed in her new autobiographical book, Free to Think: Why Scientific Integrity Matters. Free to Think tells the story of a biology professor who cares deeply about students, received glowing student reviews, wouldn't compromise her integrity when challenged to disregard anti-cheating rules, and produced high quality curricular tools. But Crocker had one fatal flaw: she would not capitulate to the Darwinian consensus in the classroom. When some GMU administrators learned that she'd challenged evolution, they told her that she had to be "disciplined" because she taught "creationism." While GMU now denies that Crocker's dismissal had anything to do with evolution, her book explains that this is most definitely not what she was told behind closed doors.

But Free to Think is not some sob story. It contains heartwarming and amusing accounts of Crocker's interaction with students. What struck me were the lengths to which Crocker would go to accommodate and help students facing difficult life circumstances. It is saddening (though not surprising) that she has received many attacks on her character from evolutionists who know neither Crocker nor her story. For example, the NCSE's attack on Expelled tries to muddy the waters about Dr. Crocker's plight. On the one hand, they suggest she was let go "simply for staffing reasons," further stating that "[w]e do not know for certain why Crocker was not re-hired for her non-tenure track job." On the other hand, they try to impugn Crocker by claiming she received "student complaints," and was "unable or unwilling to teach accurate science." So which version of the NCSE's story is true? Neither is true. The true story is told in Free to Think: until Crocker challenged evolution in the classroom, she was recognized as an outstanding teacher. At the very time Crocker was told by her Department Head that she would be disciplined for challenging Darwin, she received a performance review from her Provost that called her teaching "outstanding" as "evidenced by unusually high student rankings"! The Provost even praised her, saying, "This kind of teaching quality is essential for this vital educational program, and we're very grateful for your successful efforts." Such statements hardly describe a teacher who would otherwise be expected to soon lose her job. Yet Crocker did subsequently lose her job, and we know exactly why. As Crocker documents in her book, her administrators didn't want her challenging Darwin. Free to Think elaborates on what Crocker really taught—and it was not creationism. Rather, she discussed sound challenges to neo-Darwinism and briefly mentioned ID. Evolution was part of the description of her Cell Biology course, and she did teach the pro-evolution evidence. But she felt that intellectual honesty demanded that she inform students about where that evidence was weak. The book explains that GMU's academic freedom policy purports to grant faculty "unrestricted expositions on subjects within one's field…without fear of censorship or penalty." Apparently that holds true, as long as you're not a biologist who wants to support ID. With a Foreword written by Ben Stein, Free to Think offers intriguing new details about her case. For example, Crocker wasn't the only person "expelled" during this incident. Without giving away the whole story, Mr. Ed Sisson started off as her attorney advocate and ended up a victim himself. Read Free to Think for the full story. Even if you think you know Caroline Crocker's story, you should read Free to Think. It will open your eyes to what pro-ID faculty face in the academy and encourage you that there are still scientists who care about the truth and will not back down when pressured.

Posted by Casey Luskin on July 15, 2010 9:45 AM | Permalink

Sperm in all animals originated 600 million years ago


Gene for reproduction has remained unaltered throughout evolution, study says

by LiveScience Staff

updated 7/15/2010 5:30:28 PM ET

A gene responsible for sperm production is so vital that its function has remained unaltered throughout evolution and is found in almost all animals, according to a new study. The results suggest the ability to produce sperm originated 600 million years ago.

The gene, called Boule, appears to be the only gene known to be exclusively required for sperm production in animals ranging from an insect to a mammal.

"Our findings also show that humans, despite how complex we are, across the evolutionary lines all the way to flies, which are very simple, still have one fundamental element that's shared," said Eugene Xu, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The discovery of Boule's key role in perpetuating animal species offers a better understanding of male infertility, a potential target for a male contraceptive drug, and a new direction for future development of pesticides or medicine to fight infectious parasites.

The study will be published July 15 in the journal PLoS Genetics.

Sperm search

Prior to the new findings, scientists didn't know whether sperm produced by various animal species came from the same prototype. In many evolution scenarios, things develop independently. As an example, birds and insects both fly, but the wings of each originated and evolved completely independently.

For the study, Xu searched for and discovered the presence of the Boule gene in sperm across different evolutionary lines: human, mammal, fish, insect, worm and marine invertebrate. The search required sperm from a sea urchin, a rooster, a fruit fly, a human and a fish.

The findings were unexpected because many sex-specific genes, including other genes involved in sperm production, are usually under evolutionary pressure to change.

"It's really surprising because sperm production gets pounded by natural selection," Xu said. "It tends to change due to strong selective pressures for sperm-specific genes to evolve. There is extra pressure to be a super male to improve reproductive success. This is the one sex-specific element that didn't change across species. This must be so important that it cant change."

Helping humans

The sperm-gene discovery could have many practical uses for human health. For instance, when the researchers knocked out Boule from a mouse, the animal appeared to be healthy but did not produce sperm.

"A sperm-specific gene like Boule is an ideal target for a male contraceptive drug," Xu said.

Boule also has the potential to reduce diseases caused by mosquitoes and parasites.

"We now have one strong candidate to target for controlling their breeding," Xu said. "Our work suggests that disrupting the function of Boule in animals most likely will disrupt their breeding and put the threatening parasites or germs under control. This could represent a new direction in our future development of pesticides or medicine against infectious parasites or carriers of germs."

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and Northwestern Memorial Foundation.

Polling creation/evolution


Category: Creationism • Culture Wars • Policy and Politics
Posted on: July 15, 2010 12:43 AM, by Josh Rosenau

Attention conservation notice: 3000 words about how smart people who ought to know better are reading way too much into a poll.

Last May, NCSE reported on a poll on evolution conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University. The results were, to my eye, in line with most of the other polling out there, so I never wrote about it here, other than a passing mention in a post about my WaPo review of Elaine Howard Ecklund's Science vs. Religion.

Anyway, a month and a half later, Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse have discovered the poll, and each has found different questions in the poll that they find worthy of comment. Before we delve into this, I'll suggest that folks read professional pollster George Bishop's essay on the vagaries of polls on evolution and creationism, and the pitfalls to beware.

Jason picks up on the question:

Which of these statements comes closest to your views on the origin of biological life: biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process, biological life developed over time from simple substances but God did not guide this process, God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time?

43% chose "directly created," 24% chose "God guided" evolution, 18% chose "God did not guide" evolution, and 6% were undecided or refused to answer.

These results are nicely in line with historic answers to Gallup's surveys. For the last 30 years, Gallup has asked the similar question:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings? (1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process. (2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process. (3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

Note that this question asks about humans, while VCU asked about "biological life." For the last 30 years, the Gallup numbers have varied within a 5 point range of this: 45% chose "created in present form," 37.5% chose evolution "guided by God", 11.5% chose "God had no part" evolution, and 5.5% were undecided or refused to answer.

As Jason notes, the big differences are VCU's significantly higher support for "did not guide" than Gallups for "had no part." It's a 9 point difference between VCU's result and Gallup's latest poll, and a 6.5 point jump from the long-term Gallup average. The "God guided" option took the hit in VCU's poll relative to Gallup, as the "directly created" is basically unchanged.

Jason looks at that difference and tries to develop it into a falsification of accommodationism (a term which I've noted could do with a clear definition some day). This is a deeply unsatisfying argument, as it glosses over some pretty important issues.

Not least among the problems, I don't know that anyone from the "accommodationist" camp has ever proposed the hypothesis Jason is testing. Without some clearer citation, it's hard to know if this is a legitimate extension of – I'm guessing – Chris Mooney's writings. I can see where someone might get it, but I don't know that Chris has ever claimed explicitly that New Atheism will actively decrease public acceptance of evolution or increase acceptance of creationism. I certainly know I haven't made that claim. Most significantly, I wouldn't claim that because I think the main effect of that fracas is to simply turn people away from experts whose opinion they might otherwise listen to. This could swell the ranks of the undecided, but I doubt it will move many people out of that broad middle. My concern, and what I understand Chris (and his co-authors Matt Nisbet and Sheril Kirshenbaum, at various times) to have principally argued, is that the New Atheism is likely to turn people away from folks they'd otherwise regard as trustworthy experts, and that this could hold back ongoing outreach efforts. These data don't really allow testing of that hypothesis. (I've hedged my language here because it may be that there is such an explicit prediction, and this paragraph would be moot.)

The more significant error I see in Jason's post is that he's comparing apples and oranges. Gallup asks about human evolution, VCU asks about "biological life." Framing the question in terms of humans tends to reduce support for evolution while framing it in terms of all life tends to boost support for evolution. I don't know of other polls using the "biological life" phrase, but I'd imagine that mentioning biology would also cue respondents to answer in terms of their understanding of the science, rather than their personal beliefs.

As I noted in Jason's comments, Harris tends to ask a question about human common ancestry in parallel with a question about common ancestry of all life, which lets us get a feel for the magnitude of that effect. The most recent such survey found:

In reply to one question almost half (45%) of adults say they believe humans were created directly by God and only 29% say they evolved from other species. In reply to another question 53% of these same people say they believe that "plants, animals and human beings have evolved over time," and only 21% say they do not believe this, with fully 25% who are not sure or decline to answer.

Based on this, the magnitude of the effect is roughly 8 points. That's statistically indistinguishable from the difference between Gallup's question and VCU's question. Even without considering the inherent problems of comparing one pollster to another – the house effects and order effects that can consistently, week after week, bump results up or down by several points when two pollsters ask identical questions – we can account for the difference between Gallup and VCU simply by considering the starkly different wording of their two questions.

Furthermore, Jason compared VCU's question in 2010 to Gallup's from 1998. But Gallup has been asking the question for 28 years. So why compare Gallup 1998 to VCU 2010? When we look at Gallup's results, we find a fairly steady increase in acceptance of "God had no part," from 9% in 1982 to 14% in 2008. But the Gallup poll's margin of error is 3 points, making it statistically impossible to say that the 1982 result is different from the 2008. I could probably do a time series analysis to figure out if the trend from all 9 data points is statistically significant, but it doesn't matter for our purposes here.

It doesn't matter because the rise is fairly steady over time, with no obvious inflection when the "New Atheists" started publishing. Since 2004, when Harris published The End of Faith and not long before Dawkins published The God Delusion, support for "God had no part" has moved from 13% to 14%. Since 1999 (a low outlier from the general trend, selected by Jason for no obvious reason), it has risen 4 points, but since the Four Horsemen began their march, it's risen 1 point, statistically no different than noise. If there's an inflection point – and I don't think statistical analysis would find one – it would be between August 1999 and February 2001, with (if anything) a flattening since 2004. If there's a statistically significant trend to the data at all, though, I don't think there'd be statistically significant inflection points. Certainly not from 9 data points (6 in Jason's discussion).

Finally, Jason should have compared VCU's 2010 poll with their poll from September, 2005. I plotted those results above, and you can clearly see that the big shift was not in the "directly created" line (which moved only one point, as did "God did not guide"). If "New Atheists" had an effect on "God did not guide," you'd expect to see some of that signal since 2005, but you don't. Not in Gallup, not in VCU. In VCU, but not in Gallup, we see a sizeable jump in the "guided by God" line, an 8 point shift, mostly switching from the large undecided/decline to answer category in the 2005 poll. If this tells us anything about accommodationism, it says that when you push people without strong feelings to weigh in on evolution, they'll tend to pick the "God guided" option if it's available. It'd be interesting to have data where a similarly ambivalent population was forced to make a binary choice, and see how many break for "God created" versus "evolution only." I would guess they'd pick "God only."

In short, there's simply nothing in Gallup's data, or in an informed comparison with VCU's data, that supports Jason's claimed "doubling in ten years," nor is there justification for his attempt to attribute causality, one way or another, to the rise of the "New Atheists." Jason is a mathematician, the author of a good popular book on statistics, and is working on a book that will (among other things) examine public polling on creationism and evolution. I'm confident he'd never try to read causality or claim both a trend and an inflection point based on 9 data points in his professional writing, nor would he claim equivalence between differently worded questions from different pollsters, and I don't know why he's doing it here.

Turning to Jerry Coyne, we find a different question being discussed. He's interested in this question:

In general, would you say the theory of evolution conflicts with your own religious beliefs, or is mostly compatible with your own religious beliefs?

As I mentioned in May, 42% found conflict, 43% say evolution is "mostly compatible," and 16% did not give an answer. In May, I compared these to results from a Pew survey in 2008, which found 55% of Americans thought religion and science are "often in conflict" in general, but 61% say science does not conflict with their own faith.

Anyway, Coyne takes the VCU result and opines:

The large chunk who see conflict is bad news for accommodationists. But the accommodationist response—at least that of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—is this: You don't understand your own faith, because if you did, you would see that there's really no conflict. They have a big theological task in front of them.

First, I don't quite see the bad news. Second, that most Americans are theologically illiterate would not be news, though these data don't get us down to religious affiliations to evaluate where respondents stand relative to their denominations. Third, public opinion polls do not tell us what is true, only what people think is true. Fourth, the statistically even split means that Coyne and the "New Atheists" have to make the same "you don't understand your own faith" argument to the 43% who see no incompatibility. Why is this "bad news for accommodationists" but not equally bad news for Coyne?

To the first point, then, Coyne could be making either of two arguments. Either a) it's bad news because when 42% of people see a conflict, it means that there really must really be a conflict (while when 43% say there's no conflict, it means there could still be a conflict) or b) it's bad news because there are so many people who have to be convinced that evolution is not incompatible with their religion. Option a makes little enough sense that I'll assume he means option b. And yes, it is a problem, but it isn't news (see the Pew survey from a year earlier). Furthermore, it's a problem of exactly the same proportion as the one facing anyone who, like Coyne, wants to convince Americans that evolution is incompatible with their religion, not to mention the further challenge such a person would face of having to get people, once they accept that conflict, to reject religion and accept evolution. In what sense is the news worse for "accommodationists" than for the "New Atheists" and creationists trying to woo that 43% while squabbling over the 42% who already see a conflict?

As for the second objection, many members of religious groups that have officially endorsed evolution still believe that their religion is incompatible with evolution. It seems reasonable to tell such people that they are at odds with their own church's doctrine. That's not insulting, and it isn't a theological task. It's an educational task. Telling someone that the Methodists have endorsed evolution is no more advocacy for Methodist theology than telling them that Methodists believe Jesus is their Lord and Savior. One can disagree with either belief while still accurately informing people that those are the official views of United Methodism. Given that most people cannot identify Genesis as the first book in the Bible and 2/3 know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount (and I can), I feel comfortable telling people about the basic doctrines of those denominations whose leadership has issued clear statements in support of evolution. Where my own knowledge gets thin, I can rely on advice from a trained theologian on NCSE's staff, our Director of Religious Community Outreach.

To the third point, I'll note that these public polls are less informative about the truth of this matter than a review of the number of religious scientists, a statistic Coyne has derided. There's no question that it signals a problem when 31% of nonscientists think scientists have doubts about evolution, but it does not signal that those people are right. If you want to understand a technical topic, you consult relevant experts. In the case of evolution, you talk to biologists, and get near unanimity about the central role of evolution in biology. In the case of theology, you talk to theologians, and in the case of the intersection of science and religion, you talk to people who study science and religion, who agree that there need not be conflict (though conflict is, of course, possible).

And the fourth point speaks for itself. Why is this bad news for "accommodationists" but not for "New Atheists"? The numbers are nearly identical, so it would seem that the bad news is symmetrical as well.

Then Coyne makes an argument that never ceases to amaze me when I find it in the wild:

How do we solve the problem? Many scientists—atheists and accommodationists alike—are trying to educate people about what evolution is and how much evidence supports it. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be working very well, at least judging by how little acceptance of evolution has budged over the last few decades.

It is not sufficient to look at polls, see no change, and declare that what we're doing isn't working. It would only be valid if you had a controlled experiment, or some sort of randomization or statistical controls that let you isolate the effects of these education efforts from all the other effects out there.

What other effects? Answers in Genesis has a budget that dwarfs NCSE's, and AiG is only about 2/3 of the creationist marketplace. Toss in funding to natural history museums, NSF educational funding and funding for "broader impacts" of research grants, and more may be spent on evolution outreach than on creationist outreach, but creationists also have a lot of volunteers, and a lot of churches and other groups promoting creationism outside of official channels. Note also that creationist funding seems to be rising more rapidly than NCSE's funding.

We also know that 1 in 6 high school biology teachers are creationist, and 1 in 8 of those teachers spend at least an hour advocating creationism. Teachers are rarely required to have a college class in evolution, and those who do not have such a class are less likely to spend time on evolution. These are all serious issues, and there's no way that someone as versed in experimental design and data analysis as I know Coyne to be would ignore those. The science education efforts Coyne describes are not happening in a vacuum, and any evaluation of their success given public polling data has to account for everything else happening in society.

Given what we'll call a rough parity of concerted effort, is it surprising that there's little to no trend in the polls? No. All it means is that science education efforts are canceling out the effects of creationist efforts. Note also that polls today will not reflect data from students currently in school, and that there's far less outreach to adults than to school children. This would introduce a significant lag into any signal one might find in the polls. Assuming kids take high school biology in 9th grade, when they're 14, they are unlikely to be polled until they're 18, so that's a minimum 4 year lag, and longer until enough students reach the adult population to show up in polls to significant degrees. Naively waving poll numbers around without any sort of mention or consideration of these factors is not the solution.

Now I'm sure that someone with the right data and some serious statistical models could tease out these effects. I don't know that the right data exist at all, but maybe the GSS have data with which we could isolate a signal and identify the effects of creationist outreach vs. scientific outreach, and see what works and what doesn't. But Jerry cites no such research, he simply asserts that a flat poll line means that what is currently being done is not working. I know he wouldn't approach data from an uncontrolled field study so blithely, and I can't imagine why he'd treat these data that way.