NTS LogoSkeptical News for 15 May 2011

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Evolution education update: May 13, 2011

A new issue of Reports of the NCSE is now available. Plus Florida's antievolution bill is dead, while support to repeal Louisiana's antievolution bill continues to mount.

RNCSE 31:2 NOW ON-LINE

NCSE is pleased to announce the second issue of Reports of the National Center for Science Education in its new on-line format. The issue -- volume 31, number 2 -- includes Matt Cartmill's "Turtles All the Way Down: The Atlas of Creation"; Alice Beck Kehoe's "The Lost Civilizations of North America Found … Again!"; and, in his regular People and Places column, Randy Moore's "Billy Sunday: 1862-1935," discussing the creationism of the ballplayer-turned-evangelist.

Plus a flurry of Darwinalia: Michael D. Barton reviews John van Wyhe's The Darwin Experience; Steven Conn reviews James Lander's Lincoln & Darwin; Piers J. Hale reviews David N. Reznick's The Origin Then and Now; Allen D. MacNeill reviews James T. Costa's The Annotated Origin; Michael Ruse reviews Phillip Prodger's Darwin's Camera and Barbara Larson and Fae Brauer's The Art of Evolution, and Keith Thomson reviews Julia Voss's Darwin's Pictures.

All of these articles, features, and reviews are freely available in PDF form from http://reports.ncse.com. Members of NCSE will shortly be receiving in the mail the print supplement to Reports 31:2, which contains, in addition to summaries of the on-line material, news from the membership, a new column in which NCSE staffers offer personal reports on what they've been doing to defend the teaching of evolution, and more besides. (Not a member? Join today!)

For the table of contents for RNCSE 31:2, visit:
http://reports.ncse.com/index.php/rncse/issue/current/showToc

For information about joining NCSE, visit:
http://ncse.com/membership

FLORIDA ANTIEVOLUTION BILL DIES

When the Florida legislature adjourned sine die on May 7, 2011, Senate Bill 1854 died in committee. If enacted, SB 1854 would have amended a section of Florida law to require "[a] thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution" in the state's public schools. In 2009, before introducing a similar bill, SB 1854's sponsor, Stephen R. Wise (R-District 5), announced his intention to introduce a bill requiring "intelligent design" to be taught in Florida's public schools. In 2011, discussing SB 1854 with a reporter for the Tampa Tribune (March 13, 2011), he asked, "Why would you not teach both theories at the same time?" According to the Tribune, he was referring to evolution and what he called "non-evolution." Wise further explained, "I think it's a way in which people can have critical thinking ... what we're saying is here's a theory, a theory of evolution, a theory of whatever, and you decide." SB 1854 was vigorously opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Florida Citizens for Science, the Florida Academy of Sciences, and newspapers across the state, including Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel.

For the text of Florida's SB 1854, visit:
http://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2011/1854/BillText/Filed/HTML

For the story in the Tampa Tribune, visit:
http://www2.tbo.com/content/2011/mar/13/PMENEWSO1-legislators-challenge-to-evolution-has-s/

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Florida, visit:
http://ncse.com/news/florida

CONTINUING SUPPORT FOR LOUISIANA REPEAL EFFORT

Adding their support for the effort to repeal Louisiana's antievolution law are the New Orleans City Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Senate Bill 70, would, if enacted, repeal Louisiana Revised Statutes 17:285.1, which implemented the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act, passed and enacted in 2008. The American Institute for Biological Sciences, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Society for Cell Biology, the Louisiana Association of Biology Educators, the Louisiana Science Teachers Association, the National Association of Biology Teachers, and the Society for the Study of Evolution together with the Society of Systematic Biologists and the American Society of Naturalists, as well as forty-three Nobel laureates, have already endorsed SB 70.

At its May 5, 2011, meeting, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed Resolution R-11-207, supporting SB 70. According to the summary of the council's meeting, "This act [the LSEA] undermines the teaching of the scientific theory of evolution in the Louisiana public school science curriculum. This theory of evolution is a widely and commonly accepted scientific study and the basis for biology, medicine, biochemistry, agriculture, ecology and other scientific studies." Council member Gisleson Palmer was quoted as saying, "The Louisiana Science Education Act inhibits science focused students of all ages and inadequately prepares them for jobs in the science field. With the New Orleans Medical Corridor poised for tremendous growth, this law also profoundly impacts our ability to fill jobs in the cutting-edge science fields with students educated in our state's public schools."

In a letter to the sponsor of SB 70, Karen Carter Peterson (D-District 5), dated April 19, 2011, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's chief executive officer Alan I. Leshner wrote, "I write in support of your effort to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). The LSEA features language that could be used for the insertion of religious or unscientific views in science classrooms. The bill disingenuously implies that particular theories, including evolution, are controversial among scientists. In reality, the science of evolution underpines all of modern biology. The principles behind it have been tested and retested for decades, and it is supported by tens of thousands of scientific studies. Evolution informs scientific research in a broad range of fields such as agriculture and medicine, work that has an important impact on our everyday lives."

For the summary of the New Orleans City Council's meeting, visit:
http://www.nolacitycouncil.com/news/meetingsummary.asp?id={D5BF04A0-905F-4FAA-B525-9142A973504F}#story7

For the letter from the AAAS's Alan I. Leshner (PDF), visit:
http://lasciencecoalition.org/docs/AAAS_LSEA_Repeal_4.19.11.pdf

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Louisiana, visit:
http://ncse.com/news/louisiana

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

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x305
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncse.com
http://ncse.com

Read Reports of the NCSE on-line:
http://reports.ncse.com

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

NCSE is on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter:
http://www.facebook.com/evolution.ncse
http://www.youtube.com/NatCen4ScienceEd
http://twitter.com/ncse

NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today!
http://ncse.com/membership

Intelligent Design Making Headway into Texas Public Schools

http://www.christianpost.com/news/intelligent-design-making-headway-into-texas-public-schools-50210/

Fri, May. 13 2011 01:04 PM EDT
By Eryn Sun|Christian Post Correspondent

As early as this year, public schools in Texas may be able to teach students about intelligent design in their science classes, reigniting the much-heated debate over the teaching of evolutionary theory.

Because of a decision made by the State Board of Education back in 2009 – requiring teachers to encourage students to scrutinize "all sides" of current scientific theories, including evolution – a number of proposed supplemental materials are quickly making way to the board for review in July.

The Texas Education Agency has released all of the projected Web-based materials from publishers on their website, with one of the submissions already culling controversy for its purported slant towards creationism and intelligent design.

Belonging to a previously unknown company based in New Mexico, International Databases LLC, the International Business Times reported that it was operated and run by one man, President Stephen O. Sample.

Little is known about the owner, besides that he is said to have a degree in evolutionary biology and has taught at the high school and junior college levels for 15 years, according to IBT.

His proposed submission consists of eight modules covering the current issues in biology and ecology, most of the material reported to be "well within the mainstream scientific consensus."

Order Online: Darwin on Trial

But two of the modules which deal with the origin of life, is drawing criticism from groups like the Texas Freedom Network and the National Center for Science Education, for its "null hypothesis" which places intelligent design as the default position.

The "Origin of Life" chapter details lab experiments that have failed to create life from inorganic materials and states "after some sixty years of chemical experiments, showing how difficult it is to produce polypeptides, ribose/deoxyribose, and nucleotide components, the extraordinary claim is upon those advocating a materialistic cause for the origin of life."

Accompanying the chapter are notes to teachers, reading "at the end of instructional unit on the Origins of Life, students should go home with the understanding that a new paradigm of explaining life's origins is emerging from the failed attempts of naturalistic scenarios. This new way of thinking is predicated upon the hypothesis that intelligent input is necessary for life's origins."

Resuming fears of religion entering into the public school system, the supposed creationist theories have drawn opposition.

The NCSE and TFN have argued that teaching intelligent design in public schools is unconstitutional, as decided by a federal judge in Pennsylvania in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. The ruling concluded that intelligent design was not science, but a religious doctrine.

Sample, however, told IBT that this wasn't "stealth creationism." The intelligent agency might just as well be aliens, he asserted. All he wanted was for students to learn to think critically, and that unlike the physical sciences, there wasn't any experiments that could demonstrate evolutionary theory.

Joshua Rosenau, the NCSE programs and policy director, had no problems with students thinking critically, IBT recorded. But his disapproval stemmed from the fact that because of the current laws, teachers could bring in materials that might reflect religious biases without being disciplined by a school district.

Regardless, Rosenau believes that Sample's materials will not be accepted by the board based on technical grounds.

"Not even getting to the issue that is creationist, it doesn't cover all the new standards as it is supposed to, it has typos, it has basic errors of fact," shared the director, according to Atheists At Large. "It is hard to imagine it going anywhere."

If Sample's material were to pass through examination by the board, then public schools could purchase the materials for the 2011-12 school year, with local or state funds, if the Texas Legislature did not already appropriate specific funds.

And with Texas being one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the nation, the approval from the board could pave the way for the supplemental material to find its way not only into a number of classrooms, but also into hardcopy textbooks, Rosenau told AAL.

TFN and NCSE both warned in a statement released that if that were to be the case, then "using those creationism-based materials could face expensive legal challenges" while schools continued to struggle with massive budget cuts at state and local levels.

Rome Still Intact Despite Earthquake Prediction.Analysis by Rossella Lorenzi

http://news.discovery.com/earth/still-intact-rome-110511.html

Wed May 11, 2011 03:37 PM ET

Some 25 quakes struck Italy today, but none of them was the devastating temblor predicted to destroy Rome on May 11, 2011.

According to the Facebook and Twitter rumor mill, the Colosseum, the Pantheon and St Peter's, as well as the rest of the Eternal City, would be reduced to a pile of rubble by midnight.

NEWS: Rome Earthquake Prophecy Sparks Panic

The prediction was attributed to Raffaele Bendandi, a long-dead pseudoscientist who is said to have heralded several earthquakes, including the one which struck Friuli in 1976, claiming almost 1,000 lives.

However Paola Lagorio, the president of an organization dedicated to Bendandi and which preserves all his manuscripts, denied that the forecast originated from the self-taught astronomer and seismologist who died in 1979 aged 86.

"His manuscripts make no mention to any earthquake in Rome on May 11, 2011," Lagorio said.

BLOG: Can Toads Predict Earthquakes?

The minor quakes that did occur in northern Italy are normal for a seismic prone country.

"On average, there are 30 earthquakes registered every day in Italy," the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology said in a statement.

Trying to calm a raising panic, the organization opened its headquarters to the public today, arranging meetings with scientists, guided tours and lectures on earthquakes.

But despite reassurances and remarks that quakes can never be predicted, many Romans left the capital.

WATCH: Earthquake Shake Table Rocks Buildings

"One out of five people did not go to work today, while rural and beach hotels outside Rome reported higher than normal bookings," said Primo Mastrantoni, secretary of the consumer group ADUC.

In the Chinatown district in the Esquiline hill and near the central train station, many storefronts were shuttered, with shopkeepers leaving notices saying they were closed due to "family problem," "illness" or "stocking."

"The day is not over yet;" "Bendandi might have been wrong by a few days;" "I would wait until May 15th before saying this was a stupid rumor." Many of such comments are appearing on the web page 11 Maggio Terremoto a Roma (May 11 Earthquake in Rome), one of several Facebook groups dedicated to Rome's heralded cataclysm.

Indeed Bendandi's most famous earthquake forecast was inaccurate by only two days. In 1923 he predicted that an earthquake would strike the central region of the Marches on January 2 the following year.

A quake actually hit the region two days after his prediction, earning him a front page article in the daily Corriere della Sera titled, "The Man Who Forecasts Earthquakes."

Awarded a knighthood by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini for his research, Bendandi believed that earthquakes are the direct result of the combined gravitational pulls of the planets, the moon and the sun, thus they are perfectly predictable.

"He made more than 100 predictions, and often they were accurate. But there was the problem of the identification of the epicenter. A prediction which is inaccurate by just 10 kilometers (six miles) is considered unreliable, and he often was wrong by hundreds of kilometers," Lagorio told La Repubblica.

That is the case of the crucial date of May 11, according to comments spreading on social networking sites just after the news of a deadly earthquake in southern Spain.

Hitting the town of Lorca, the seism left at least seven people dead while several medieval buildings collapsed.

"I'm getting goose bumps. After all this quake talking, a strong earthquake really hit Spain, and several people are now dead," wrote one subscriber of the May 11 Earthquake Facebook group.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bogus Balms Bureau: Business Group Props Up STD Scams

http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/05/bogus-balms-bureau-the-bbbs-role-in-the-snake-oil-racket/238372/

By Ford Vox May 5 2011, 10:42 AM ET




The feds have busted 12 shady STD treatment companies—and the Better Business Bureau might be collateral damage

The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission joined forces Tuesday to threaten 12 companies with legal action over the manufacture and sale of products that purport to treat sexually transmitted diseases. The FDA's webpage alone, complete with the video STD Treatments That Don't Work, will prove a devastating assault to most of these businesses. Though it lacks the authority to carry out an IRS-style raid, the FDA has been using its legal department's fearsome prose to bust bad drugs sold as supplements for decades now, and in the past few years we've seen the agency ramp up these efforts as online commerce has driven the problem to epidemic proportions.

So while I expect a steady drumbeat of deadbeat drug bashing, I was instead far more interested to discover a prominent consumer rights nonprofit linked to the mess. The Better Business Bureau lent its considerable credibility to one of the companies the Feds are slamming for endangering the country's public health. What's more, the BBB followed its normal practices and policies in doing so, the organization told me yesterday.

The BBB's involvement became apparent once I decided to take a closer look at the assortment of crappy capsules the Feds are putting on notice. I zeroed in on Medavir, produced by a central-Florida based outfit called The Arenson Group (a.k.a. TAG Health). The internet is littered with TAG's websites selling Medavir under various names. While scrolling along you'll see the usual unsubstantiated claims and endorsements from unnamed physicians that one would expect from shady operators. "Over 90% of outbreaks do not occur when you apply Medavir at first signs of outbreak," one site says. Stop the presses! For your information, that compares to about an 50 to 60 percent chance of future genital herpes outbreaks while on FDA-approved medical treatment (versus a blistering 80 to 90 percent rate without treatment) according to a 2007 meta-analysis of available trial data.

The Arenson Group preys on ashamed kids and unsophisticated adults. Your sexual partner, your doctor, and the public health department need never know!

So how's the the BBB mixed up in this? Take a look at this screen shot from one of the Medavir sites:




As shown in the above screenshot, Medavir prominently displays its BBB Accredited Business logo in the upper left hand corner of its website. Unlike the sprinkling of other certifications and logos on the site that turn out to be illegitimate, BBB's is the real deal. Until earlier today when the organization heard from me and took down their rating, consumers could click on that link to see its A+ rating from the BBB:




The BBB accredited The Arenson Group in January 2009 "based on information provided by the company and our own research," says Holly Salmons, Vice President of BBB of Central Florida.

The bottom line? The BBB is pleased to accredit questionable pill purveyors when they market their mixtures as supplements. Because The Arenson Group's website included the statement "none of these statements have been fully evaluated by the FDA" at the time they applied for accreditation (it still does), the BBB was satisfied to welcome them into its brotherhood of legitimate American businesses. In fact, Ms. Salmons says that while as of Wednesday she has frozen Arenson's status in "update" mode, the BBB will suspend or restore their accreditation only pending their response to the FDA's demands.

Arenson could potentially satisfy federal regulators by removing all medical claims from its websites and packaging and marketing Medavir in some vague manner unconnected to treating herpes sufferers. That would leave little text on their sites indeed. I find it difficult to imagine what a website attempting to sell Medavir without claiming that it treats herpes would look like (what in the world is a "herpes supplement"?), and I'd love to see the original materials the BBB reviewed in 2009.

Once BBB approved Medavir's membership, the company wasn't slated for another review for three years, giving plenty of time for its claims to become progressively more egregious without any oversight. But lack of such frequent review doesn't seem to be the crux of the problem in my own analysis. BBB protests to me that Medavir's January 2009 materials fit classification as a supplement and did not overstep bounds into FDA-regulated territory. After reviewing versions of Medavir.com from January 2009 and the oldest available version from June 2008 over at the Internet Archive, I don't buy their version of events. Take a look back, and make your own call.

The Arenson Group showed off its A+ BBB rating to its vulnerable lot of prospective consumers as an implied seal of approval. This use, even for a health care product, is routine in BBB practice. "Accredited Businesses are permitted to report their rating as long as it is accurate at all times," BBB VP Salmons tells me. Arenson had just two complaints over three years, she says, which is a low complaint volume. Another BBB policy helps explain why Medavir might have so few complaints. BBB only accepts complaints that come with real names and documentation.

People searching out genital herpes cures from the privacy of their own homes are obviously reluctant or unable to do so in the care of actual medical professionals out there in the real world. These consumers must have found some reassurance in BBB's A+ rating, which is why the Medavir site advertised it high above the fold. Medavir had a perfectly marginalized population base from which to draw its A+ record: folks too anxiety-ridden to speak up once they realized they'd been scammed; STD sufferers who didn't think admitting they have herpes to a third party was worth it when that third party took the Hippocratic Oath certainly aren't going to confide their private secrets to the BBB.

The characters behind Medavir made BBB into a Bogus Balms Bureau. To get out of this fix, BBB needs to eject itself from the field of lending credibility to unregulated drug makers entirely. This means excluding health "supplements." It's hard enough for physicians and the FDA to weigh evidence about these agents. BBB ratings are bestowed by an organization with no possible claim to competence in mediating between patients and providers in the unique health care marketplace, as the policies that led to this case prove. Moreover, BBB ratings add nothing of value to any consumer considering what pills to take for an illness. Continuing to offer accreditation to firms like The Arenson Group (aka Medavir Medical Advances) of Windmere, Florida, whether or not they barely skirt FDA enforcement does a disservice to BBB's own heritage.

Parent launches campaign to stop teaching of creationism

http://www.thisisexeter.co.uk/news/Campaign-starts-stop-teaching-creationism/article-3547716-detail/article.html

By caroline abbott

THE parent who criticised an Exeter school for allowing a creationist to present his views as scientific facts to students has launched a campaign.

Laura Horner founded Creationism In Schools Isn't Science (CrISIS) after her son and other Year 11 students at St Peter's Church of England Aided School had a visit from Philip Bell.

As the Echo reported last month, Mrs Horner claimed that Mr Bell, who runs the UK arm of Creation Ministries International, visited the school with the aim of evangelising his views, including that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

The school's headteacher, Mark Perry, defended the visit, and said: "Creationism is on the religious education GCSE syllabus so we had a creationist come to speak about it. His visit was followed up in the classroom where the pupils examined the arguments." Mrs Horner, 45, from Digby, Exeter, started the campaign to call for a tightening-up of the national guidelines on the teaching of creationism by the Department for Education.

She said: "I was appalled to find out that my child had been exposed to this dangerous nonsense and I am determined that the Secretary of State for Education should urgently plug the loophole that allows creationists to do this."

Today, CrISIS is formally launching an online petition to the secretary of state, Michael Gove. There are already 1,500 signatures.

And CrISIS is also delivering an open letter to Mr Gove signed by key figures from both the scientific and religious communities, showing that the campaign is driven by a concern for educational standards, and not a dispute between the religious and non-religious.

CrISIS, supported by the British Centre for Science Education, the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia and the National Secular Society, wants the guidelines to specifically prevent creationism being taught, presented, or otherwise promoted as a valid scientific position in any lesson or activity to children in state funded schools.

Professor Paul Braterman, of the British Centre for Science Education, said: "State-funded schools must not sell children short by allowing beliefs to be promoted as 'facts' of equal value with scientific evidence."

Tessa Kendall, senior campaigns officer of the National Secular Society, said: "When teaching evolution, as well as the origins of the universe and the age of the earth, it should be made clear that science is not an 'alternative' and that there are not other 'truths' of equal value."

The petition can be found at www.gopetition.com/petitions/crisis-creationism-in-schools-isn-t-science.html.


Sunday, May 08, 2011

Evolution education update: May 6, 2011

Support for the effort to repeal Louisiana's antievolution law is mounting. Plus: new poll data from Britain; the NAGT adds its voice for evolution; and a preview of The Darwinian Tourist. And seats are still available for NCSE's next trip down the Grand Canyon!

SUPPORT FOR LOUISIANA REPEAL EFFORT

Support for the effort to repeal Louisiana's antievolution law is mounting. The American Institute for Biological Sciences, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Society for Cell Biology, the Louisiana Association of Biology Educators, the Louisiana Science Teachers Association, the National Association of Biology Teachers, and the Society for the Study of Evolution together with the Society of Systematic Biologists and the American Society of Naturalists have all endorsed Louisiana's Senate Bill 70, which if enacted would repeal Louisiana Revised Statutes 17.285.1, which implemented the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008. All of these statements are posted at the Louisiana Coalition for Science's website.

Additionally, the Repeal Creationism website -- run by Zack Kopplin, the Baton Rouge high school student who is spearheading the repeal effort -- now lists the endorsement of a number of prominent scientists and educators: Francisco Ayala, Niles Eldredge, Susan Epperson (the plaintiff in the 1968 Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas, which established the unconstitutionality of bans on teaching evolution), Paul R. Gross, Lawrence S. Lerner, Kenneth R. Miller, Neil Shubin, John Sulston (the forty-third Nobel laureate to support the repeal effort), and Tim White. Also endorsing the repeal effort is the Clergy Letter Project, representing more than 14,000 religious leaders who acknowledge the scientific importance of evolution.

As Barbara Forrest -- a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University, a cofounder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, and a member of NCSE's board of directors -- wrote in her op-ed for Houma Today (April 26, 2011), "There are compelling reasons for repeal. First, the LSEA permits public school science teachers to use creationist materials under the guide of 'critical thinking.' ... Second, neither science teachers nor scientists requested this law. ... Third, Louisiana lost a national convention because of the LSEA. ... Other organizations may do the same. ... Fourth, ... school board members have discussed using the LSEA to teach creationism. ... School boards are being tempted to risk lawsuits when teachers face layoffs because of budget cuts!"

For the statements of support, visit:
http://lasciencecoalition.org/2011/05/04/letters-and-statements-of-support-repeal-la-sci-ed-act/
http://www.repealcreationism.com/

For Forrest's op-ed, visit:
http://www.houmatoday.com/article/20110426/LETTERS/110429670/1031/opinion

POLLING EVOLUTION IN BRITAIN

Two questions in Public Attitudes to Science 2011, a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI in association with the British Science Association for the United Kingdom's Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills, are relevant to the creationism/evolution controversy.

The topline report details that, presented with "Human beings have evolved from other animals," 67% of respondents agreed and 17% disagreed, with 12% neither agreeing nor disagreeing and 3% saying that they didn't know; presented with "God created the earth and all life in it," 39% of respondents agreed and 37% disagreed, with 21% neither agreeing nor disagreeing and 3% saying that they didn't know.

The survey was conducted among 2103 British adults aged 16 or older, in face-to-face in-home interviews from October 11 to December 19, 2010; the data were weighted to reflect the population profile of the United Kingdom.

For the topline report from Ipsos MORI, visit:
http://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/ipsos-mori-pas-2011-topline.pdf

For further information on the survey, visit:
http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/2764/Public-Attitudes-to-Science-2011.aspx

GEOSCIENCE TEACHERS ADD THEIR VOICE FOR EVOLUTION

The chorus of support for the teaching of evolution continues, with a statement from the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, issued in 2006.

In its statement, the NAGT recognizes that "the scientific theory of evolution is a foundational concept of science, and therefore must also be a cornerstone of science education," observes that "[s]cientists often disagree about explanations of how evolution works, the importance of specific evolutionary processes, or the patterns that are observed, but all agree that evolution has occurred and is occurring now," and insists that "invoking non-naturalistic or supernatural events or beings, often guised as 'creation science,' 'scientific creationism,' or 'intelligent design theory,' are not scientific in character, do not conform to the scientific usage of the word theory, and should not be part of valid science curricula."

The NAGT's statement is now reproduced, by permission, on NCSE's website, and will also be contained in the fourth edition of NCSE's Voices for Evolution.

For the NAGT's statement, visit:
http://nagt.org/nagt/policy/ps-evolution.html

For Voices for Evolution, visit:
http://ncse.com/voices

A PREVIEW OF THE DARWINIAN TOURIST

NCSE is pleased to offer a free preview of Christopher Wills's The Darwinian Tourist: Viewing the World Through Evolutionary Eyes (Oxford University Press, 2010). The excerpt, chapter 1, takes a dive in Indonesia's Lembeh Strait as the chance to introduce the concept of common descent. Wills writes, "Surely no two organisms could be more dissimilar than the ingenious and graceful water-breathing cuttlefish and its clumsy air-gulping human observer. But in fact, even though present-day cuttlefish are expert shape-shifters and we are not, we had a common ancestor. And, at the time of that common ancestor, a far more astonishing shape-shift took place, one that had enormous evolutionary consequences."

The publisher writes, "In The Darwinian Tourist, biologist Christopher Wills takes us on a series of adventures -- exciting in their own right -- that demonstrate how ecology and evolution have interacted to create the world we live in. ... With his own stunning color photographs of the wildlife he discovered on his travels, Wills not only takes us to these far-off places but, more important, draws out the evolutionary stories behind the wildlife and shows how our understanding of the living world can be deepened by a Darwinian perspective. ... The reader comes away with a renewed sense of wonder about the world's astounding diversity, along with a new appreciation of the long evolutionary history that has led to the wonders of the present-day."

For the preview (PDF), visit:
http://ncse.com/files/pub/evolution/Excerpt--Darwinian.pdf

For information on The Darwinian Tourist, visit:
http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/LifeSciences/EvolutionaryBiology/?view=usa&ci=9780199584383

NCSE AND THE GRAND CANYON 2011

Explore the Grand Canyon with Scott, Newton, and Gish! Seats are still available for NCSE's next excursion to the Grand Canyon -- as featured in The New York Times (October 6, 2005). From June 30 to July 8, 2011, NCSE will again explore the wonders of creation and evolution on a Grand Canyon river run conducted by NCSE's Genie Scott, NCSE's Steven Newton, and paleontologist Alan ("Gish") Gishlick. Because this is an NCSE trip, we offer more than just the typically grand float down the Canyon, the spectacular scenery, fascinating natural history, brilliant night skies, exciting rapids, delicious meals, and good company. It is, in fact, a unique "two-model" raft trip, on which we provide both the creationist view of the Grand Canyon (maybe not entirely seriously) and the evolutionist view -- and let you make up your own mind. To get a glimpse of the fun, watch the short videos filmed during the 2009 trip, posted on NCSE's YouTube site. The cost of the excursion is $2545; a deposit of $500 will hold your spot. Seats are limited: call, write, or e-mail now.

For information about the trip, visit:
http://ncse.com/about/excursions/gcfaq

For NCSE's report on the story in The New York Times, visit:
http://ncse.com/news/2005/10/seeing-creation-evolution-grand-canyon-00771

For NCSE's YouTube site, visit:
http://www.youtube.com/user/NatCen4ScienceEd

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

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x305
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncse.com
http://ncse.com

Read Reports of the NCSE on-line:
http://reports.ncse.com

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

NCSE is on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter:
http://www.facebook.com/evolution.ncse
http://www.youtube.com/NatCen4ScienceEd
http://twitter.com/ncse

NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today!
http://ncse.com/membership

Evolution Debunked by I.D. of Bin Laden's Body

http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/laurilebo/4578/evolution_debunked_by_i.d._of_bin_laden%E2%80%99s_body/

May 6, 201112:49PM
Post by Lauri Lebo

There is a wonderful scene in Douglas Adams' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe in which a torture device called the Total Perspective Vortex is used to destroy enemies. It is a machine which no creature could possibly hope to survive.

When put into the Vortex, one is given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "You are here."

As Adams wrote: The Total Perspective Vortex illustrated that "In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion."

Which brings me to the Discovery Institute's latest claim on "junk DNA."

Earlier this week, David Klinghoffer wrote a Discovery Institute piece wondering whether President Obama held off on going after Osama bin Laden to coincide with the release of Discovery fellow Jonathan Wells' latest book, The Myth of Junk DNA.

OK, Klinghoffer is kidding on that part. It's what we in the news biz like to call, "a news hook."

But here's where he gets serious:

How do you think OBL's body was identified? By a comparison with his sister's DNA, evidently those non-coding regions singled out by Darwin defenders, among the pantheon of other mythological evolutionary icons, as functionless "junk." Indeed, the myth has featured in news coverage of Osama's death.

Yes, to confirm that the man killed was indeed Osama bin Laden, forensics experts took a DNA sample and matched it with samples from half siblings, providing a 99.9 percent confidence rate that it was him.

For background, "junk DNA" is the portion of the genome that does not encode for protein sequences. As PZ Myers points out over at Pharyngula, this noncoding DNA is "subject to random changes at a higher rate than coding DNA, because it is not subject to functional constraints." Because of this, it's been called a genetic fingerprint, and is very useful in forensic identification.

By the way, when Susumu Ohno coined the term "junk DNA" in 1972, it was never meant to convey that the strands of DNA were worthless. Rather, it was a reference to how the non-coding genes accumulate.

As Arri Eisen, RD contributor and professor of pedagogy in Biology for Emory University's Center for Ethics, explains, much of junk DNA is believed to be simply the accumulated detritus of our evolutionary history, such as bits of leftover viruses. But in the past several decades, scientists have discovered actual functions in some of that genetic material (such as encoding for RNAs that never become proteins).

Eisen says that as scientists continue to theorize about the possible reasons for all that spare DNA - perhaps it provides extra genetic material to shuffle in case of evolutionary emergencies – they continue to test and research those theories, discarding ones that don't work, and try to develop answers to this vexing question, something that cannot be said of the folks at the Discovery Institute.

But somehow Klinghoffer takes the forensic test of bin Laden's identity and argues that it disproves evolution.

"If Darwin is right, there ought to be huge swaths of ancestral garbage cluttering the genome, serving no purpose other than to identify otherwise unidentified forensic remains. So if those huge swaths turn out after all to be vitally important to the functioning organism, what does that say about Darwin's theory? Ah, that's exactly the question addressed in Jonathan Wells' book."

This, of course, is ridiculous. Darwin never wrote about "junk DNA" nor did he have any understanding of genetics. Francis Crick and James Watson didn't discover the structure of the genetic molecule until almost a century after the publishing of Origin of Species.

So what is Klinghoffer's point?

Let's see how many Darwin lobbyists have the guts and honesty to acknowledge that another icon has fallen. They have not, on the whole, left themselves a lot of room for deniability on this.

This is so convoluted, it's difficult to figure out. But I think Klinghoffer is saying that because the apparently non-functional DNA helped scientists identify bin Laden, it has a purpose. And therefore, cannot be considered junk. And while he doesn't mention God, because, as we know, intelligent design has nothing to do with God, it means that our DNA must be ever-so-perfectly designed, almost as if it were created just to help us win the War on Terrorism.

When Restaurant at the End of the Universe hero Zaphod Beeblebrox was put into the Total Perspective Vortex readers expected him to emerge crushed—but he strolled out completely fine. The reason was that the machine merely confirmed what he had suspected all along. He really was the center of the universe.

Of course, it was later learned that Beeblebrox had used the vortex in an alternative reality, one created just for him.


Thursday, May 05, 2011

Support for Louisiana repeal effort

http://ncse.com/news/2011/05/support-louisiana-repeal-effort-006656

May 4th, 2011
Louisianaanti-evolution2011

Support for the effort to repeal Louisiana's antievolution law is mounting. The American Institute for Biological Sciences, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Society for Cell Biology, the Louisiana Association of Biology Educators, the Louisiana Science Teachers Association, the National Association of Biology Teachers, and the Society for the Study of Evolution together with the Society of Systematic Biologists and the American Society of Naturalists have all endorsed Louisiana's Senate Bill 70, which if enacted would repeal Louisiana Revised Statutes 17.285.1, which implemented the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008. All of these statements are posted at the Louisiana Coalition for Science's website.

Additionally, the Repeal Creationism website — run by Zack Kopplin, the Baton Rouge high school student who is spearheading the repeal effort — now lists the endorsement of a number of prominent scientists and educators: Francisco Ayala, Niles Eldredge, Susan Epperson (the plaintiff in the 1968 Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas, which established the unconstitutionality of bans on teaching evolution), Paul R. Gross, Lawrence S. Lerner, Kenneth R. Miller, Neil Shubin, John Sulston (the forty-third Nobel laureate to support the repeal effort), and Tim White. Also endorsing the repeal effort is the Clergy Letter Project, representing more than 14,000 religious leaders who acknowledge the scientific importance of evolution.

As Barbara Forrest — a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University, a cofounder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, and a member of NCSE's board of directors — wrote in her op-ed for Houma Today (April 26, 2011), "There are compelling reasons for repeal. First, the LSEA permits public school science teachers to use creationist materials under the guide of 'critical thinking.' ... Second, neither science teachers nor scientists requested this law. ... Third, Louisiana lost a national convention because of the LSEA. ... Other organizations may do the same. ... Fourth, ... school board members have discussed using the LSEA to teach creationism. ... School boards are being tempted to risk lawsuits when teachers face layoffs because of budget cuts!"

Evolution education update: April 29, 2011

Kenneth R. Miller is to receive the Stephen Jay Gould Prize. Supplementary biology materials submitted for approval in Texas are "laced with creationist arguments." A new poll offers insight on public opinion on evolution and creationism globally. And no fewer than forty-two Nobel-prize-winning scientists call for a repeal of Louisiana's antievolution law.

KENNETH R. MILLER TO RECEIVE GOULD AWARD

NCSE congratulates Kenneth R. Miller for winning the 2011 Stephen Jay Gould Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution. Professor of Biology and Royce Family Professor for Teaching Excellence at Brown University, Miller is a Supporter of NCSE as well as a recipient of its Friend of Darwin award. Miller will receive the Gould Prize and present a public lecture on June 18, 2011, at the Evolution 2011 conference in Norman, Oklahoma.

The announcement of the award from the SSE described Miller as "an eloquent and passionate defender of evolution and the scientific method," citing his testimony in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the 2005 case establishing the unconstitutionality of teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools, as well as his widely used high school textbooks coauthored with Joseph Levine and his books Finding Darwin's God (1999) and Only a Theory (2008).

The Stephen Jay Gould Prize is awarded annually by the SSE "to recognize individuals whose sustained and exemplary efforts have advanced public understanding of evolutionary science and its importance in biology, education, and everyday life in the spirit of Stephen Jay Gould." NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott was the recipient of the first Gould Prize, in 2009, followed by NCSE Supporter Sean B. Carroll in 2010.

For the announcement from the SSE, visit:
http://www.evolutionsociety.org/awards.asp

CREATIONIST MATERIALS SUBMITTED IN TEXAS

Materials "laced with creationist arguments" have been submitted for approval by the Texas state board of education, charged the Texas Freedom Network and the National Center for Science Education in a joint press release issued on April 25, 2011. As the press release explains, "The Texas Education Agency has made available on its website science instructional materials -- all of them web-based -- that publishers and other vendors have proposed for high school biology classes across the state. Materials approved by the state board in July could be in Texas science classrooms for nearly a decade. An initial review by NCSE and TFN has revealed that materials from at least one vendor, ... International Databases Inc., promote anti-evolution arguments made by proponents of intelligent design/creationism."

"International Databases' materials are not only laced with creationist arguments," said NCSE's Joshua Rosenau, "they are also remarkably shoddy, teeming with misspellings, typographical errors, and mistaken claims of fact." The press release cited "intelligent design"-tinged claims such as "life on Earth is the result of intelligent causes" and "students should go home with the understanding that a new paradigm of explaining life's origins is emerging from the failed attempts of naturalistic scenarios. This new way of thinking is predicated upon the hypothesis that intelligent input is necessary for life's origins." The materials describe "intelligent design" as a "legitimate scientific hypothesis" and even as "the default position," despite the consensus of the scientific community that it is not. Examples of these claims are posted at the TFN's website.

"Two years ago State Board of Education members thumbed their noses at the science community and approved new curriculum standards that opened the door to creationism and junk science," said TFN President Kathy Miller. "Now they are getting exactly what they wanted -- the chance to make Texas the poster child for the creationist movement. The state board would be aiding and abetting wholesale academic fraud and dumbing down the education of millions of Texas kids if it doesn't reject these materials." All of the materials submitted for approval will be examined in June 2011 by teams of reviewers appointed by the Texas Education Agency; the Texas state board of education is scheduled to hold a public hearing and final vote on the materials in July 2011; public schools could then decide to purchase approved materials for classroom use in the 2011-2012 school year.

For the press release, visit:
http://www.tfn.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6509

For examples of the claims (PDF), visit:
http://www.tfn.org/IDexamples

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

POLLING CREATIONISM AND EVOLUTION AROUND THE WORLD

A new poll conducted by Ipsos for Reuters News in twenty-four countries found that 41% of respondents identified themselves as "evolutionists" and 28% as "creationists," with 31% indicating that they "simply don't know what to believe," according to a press release issued by Ipsos on April 25, 2011.

Respondents were prompted with "There has been some debate recently about the origins of human beings. Please tell me which of the following is closer to your own point of view" and presented with:

* Some people are referred to as 'evolutionist's' [sic] and believe that human beings were in fact created over a long period of time of evolution growing into fully formed human beings they are today from lower species such as apes; * Some people are referred to as 'creationist's' and believe that human beings were in fact created by a spiritual force such as the God they believe in and do not believe that the origin of man came from evolving from other species such as apes; and * Some people simply don't know what to believe and sometimes agree or disagree with theories and ideas put forward by both creationist's and evolutionist's.

The countries were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States.

The "evolutionist" view was most popular in Sweden (68%), Germany (65%), and China (64%), with the United States ranking 18th (28%), between Mexico (34%) and Russia (26%); the "creationist" view was most popular in Saudi Arabia (75%), Turkey (60%), and Indonesia (57%), with the United States ranking 6th (40%), between Brazil (47%) and Russia (34%).

Consistently with previous polls, in the United States, acceptance of evolution was higher among respondents who were younger, with a higher level of household income, and with a higher level of education. Gender was not particularly important, however: the difference between male and female respondents in the United States was no more than 2%.

The survey was conducted on-line between September 7 and September 23, 2010, with approximately 1000 participants per country except for Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Russia, and Turkey, for which there were approximately 500 participants per country; the results were weighted to balance demographics.

For the press release, visit:
http://www.ipsos-na.com/news-polls/pressrelease.aspx?id=5217

And for NCSE's collection of material on polls and surveys, visit:
http://ncse.com/creationism/polls-surveys

NOBELISTS ENDORSE LOUISIANA REPEAL EFFORT

Forty-two Nobel-prize-winning scientists have urged the Louisiana legislature to repeal "the misnamed and misguided Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) of 2008," describing it as creating "a pathway for creationism and other forms of non-scientific instruction to be taught in public school science classrooms." The statement, circulated by Zach Kopplin, the Baton Rouge high school student who is spearheading the effort to repeal Louisiana Revised Statutes 17:285.1, which implemented the LSEA, was released to the press on April 21, 2011, and is available on the Repeal Creationism website.

As NCSE previously reported, Senate Bill 70, prefiled by Karen Carter Peterson (D-District 5), in the Louisiana Senate on April 15, 2011, and provisionally referred to the Senate Committee on Education, would, if enacted, repeal Louisiana Revised Statutes 17:285.1. The legislative session begins on April 25, 2011. A rally in support of SB 70 took place at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge at 11:00 a.m. on April 28, 2011, and there was also a table with information about the repeal effort in the atrium of the capitol from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on the same day, according to the Facebook page for the rally.

Roger Kornberg of the Stanford University School of Medicine, a signatory of the statement who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2006 for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription, told the Associated Press (April 21, 2011) that the passage of the LSEA was "a tragedy for the young people of Louisiana and an embarrassment for the entire state and the nation. Shame on the legislature that enacted it, and especially on the governor who signed it into law." A spokesperson for Governor Bobby Jindal told the Associated Press that Jindal opposes any attempts to repeal the law.

For the Nobelists' statement, visit:
http://www.repealcreationism.com/397/41-nobel-laureates-send-a-letter-to-the-louisiana-legislature/

For information about the rally to support SB 70, visit:
http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=209023669116019

For the Associated Press story (via the New Orleans Times-Picayune), visit:
http://www.nola.com/newsflash/index.ssf/story/nobel-laureates-push-repeal-of-la-education/4d524f4b68b3481ea17f66e37e426c94

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Louisiana, visit:
http://ncse.com/louisiana

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

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x310
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncse.com
http://ncse.com

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http://reports.ncse.com

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Monday, May 02, 2011

Southern Discourse: Creationism creates misconceptions in science education

http://www.lsureveille.com/opinion/southern-discourse-creationism-creates-misconceptions-in-science-education-1.2556814

By Macy Linton

Columnist

Published: Sunday, May 1, 2011

Updated: Sunday, May 1, 2011 21:05

The subject of creationism in public school classrooms has once again taken precedence in the South's legislative season.

In Tennessee, where John Scopes was memorably tried for defying a legislative act barring evolution from being taught in public schools, science education seems to have taken a step backward with a bill that would "embolden teachers who want to bring their own beliefs into the classroom," according to Hedy Weinberg, the head of the Tennessee chapter of the ACLU.

Tennessee's "monkey bill" (as it has come to be called) isn't the first bill to attempt to indelicately push creationism (at times called Intelligent Design or, in House Bill 368's case, "critical thinking") into the classroom.

It follows in the footsteps of several other bills, including the misleadingly named Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008, which has been criticized as "stealth legislation" allowing teachers to include creationism in their lessons.

The LSEA doesn't specifically allow for creationism to be taught in Louisiana classrooms. Rather, its equivocal wording allows for a variety of supplemental texts (like the pro-Intelligent Design textbook "Of Pandas and People") to be taught at the teacher's discretion.

Three years later, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, introduced SB 70, which would repeal LSEA if enacted.

Finally.

While the usefulness and honesty of vaguely worded "stealth legislation" is itself questionable, the bill itself is unquestionably a hindrance to science education in Louisiana. The words may be vague, but the spirit of the act is decidedly anti-science, partially written as it were by pro-Intelligent Design association The Discovery Institute. To date, both the Livingston Parish and Tangipahoa Parish school board members have discussed using the law to unconstitutionally teach creationism.

Yes, unconstitutional. Barring discussion of Thomas Jefferson's philosophy and the Treaty of Tripoli (1797), a more recent Supreme Court decision decided it so.

Heard by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1987, Edwards v. Aguillard was a legal case that centered on the teaching of creationism in Louisiana.

The Court ruled that a Louisiana law requiring that creation science be taught in public schools, along with evolution, was unconstitutional because the law was specifically intended to advance a particular religion. While the Court stated science education could certainly be improved by the teaching of a variety of scientific theories, it also emphasized the education must be secular.

In support of Aguillard, 72 Nobel prize-winning scientists and several other scientific organizations filed amicus briefs that described creation science as being comprised of religious tenets.

History repeats itself. Recently, 42 Nobel Laureates in the areas of physics, chemistry, and physiology and medicine signed a petition specifically asking members of the Louisiana Legislature to repeal LSEA.

"As Nobel Laureates in various scientific fields, we urge you to repeal the misnamed and misguided Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) of 2008. This law creates a pathway for creationism and other forms of non-scientific instruction to be taught in public school science classrooms," the petition reads.

Creationism is ultimately an idea steeped in Christian theology that has its own forum for discussion: church.

Misguided would-be missionaries must realize that it is not the job of the school to teach students about something that is ultimately a private matter, nor is it in the student's best interest to allow a teacher to lecture on such a subjective topic. And, well, I really can't say it better than 42 Nobel Laureates:

"Science offers testable, and therefore falsifiable, explanations for natural phenomena. Because it requires supernatural explanations of natural phenomena, creationism does not meet these standards."

By allowing the teaching of religion under the guise of science, teachers and legislators mislead students and leave them ill-prepared for the future. If legislators are truly looking out for the future of Louisiana, they will do us all a service and repeal LSEA.

Macy Linton is a 19-year-old international studies freshman from Memphis, Tenn. Follow her on Twitter @TDR_Mlinton.

Contact Macy Linton at mlinton@lsureveille.com


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Evolution education update: April 22, 2011

Good news from all over. Tennessee's "monkey bill" is on legislative hold in the state senate. There are still seats available on the NCSE expedition down the Grand Canyon. Tennessee's antievolution legislation was criticized twice in the pages of the Knoxville News Sentinel. Louisiana's antievolution law is the target of a repeal effort -- led by a high school senior. And the first issue of Reports of the National Center for Science Education in its new on-line format is now available.

TENNESSEE'S "MONKEY BILL" ON HOLD

Tennessee's Senate Bill 893 -- nicknamed, along with its counterpart House Bill 368, the "monkey bill" -- is on hold, "almost certainly postponing any action until next year," according to the Knoxville News Sentinel's Humphrey on the Hill blog (April 21, 2011). Its sponsor, Bo Watson (R-District 11), assigned the bill to the general subcommittee of the Senate Education Committee on April 20, 2011, which was the last scheduled meeting of the committee; he told the blog, "Practically speaking, I probably am not going to be able to run the bill this year," although it is still possible that the committee might have a further meeting.

The bill, if enacted, would require state and local educational authorities to "assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies" and permit teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught." The only examples provided of "controversial" theories are "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

While still regarding SB 893 as "a good bill," Watson told the News Sentinel's blog that he was deferring it because of concerns expressed by faculty at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga -- where he received a B.A. in biology -- and because of possible proposed amendments: "I want to listen some more," he explained. The Tennessee House of Representatives passed HB 368 on a 70-23 vote on April 7, 2011, after a debate ranging over "the scientific method, 'intellectual bullies,' hair spray, and 'Inherit the Wind,'" as the Chattanooga Times Free Press (April 7, 2011) reported.

A particularly noteworthy moment of the House debate occurred when Frank Niceley (R-District 17) misinvoked the authority of Albert Einstein in support of HB 368, quoting the physicist as saying, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel (April 8, 2011), "A little knowledge would turn your head to atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head to Christianity." Beyond the fact that the passage is a paraphrase of a saying of the philosopher Francis Bacon, not a quotation from Einstein, it suggests that Niceley understood the bill to involve the promotion of Christianity, despite the protestations of its sponsors.

Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and a leader in the opposition to the antievolution legislation, testifying before legislative committees and writing op-eds against the bills, was relieved by Watson's decision to place his bill on hold. "It's taken eighty-six years," she told NCSE, "but perhaps at last the Tennessee legislature is learning the lesson of the Scopes trial." She added a note of caution, though: "This is the first step in the right direction, but it isn't the end of the story. Science education in Tennessee won't be truly safe until the legislature adjourns next year."

NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott also hailed the decision, praising the activists in Tennessee. "This couldn't have happened without the hard work of the ACLU of Tennessee, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and all the teachers, scientists, parents, students, and just plain folks who volunteered their time and effort to defend the teaching of evolution in the Volunteer State." She warned, however, "They'll need to stay sharp, though, to make sure that such legislation can't sneak its way back to the legislative agenda."

For the text of the bills, visit: http://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/BillInfo/default.aspx?BillNumber=SB0893
http://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/BillInfo/default.aspx?BillNumber=HB0368

For the report in the Knoxville News Sentinel's Humphrey on the Hill blog, visit:
http://blogs.knoxnews.com/humphrey/2011/04/critical-thinking-bill-or-crea.html

For the stories on the House vote on HB 368, visit:
http://timesfreepress.com/news/2011/apr/07/tennessee-house-oks-bill-shielding-teachers-who-do/
http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2011/apr/08/bill-protects-teaching-alternative-theories/

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Tennessee, visit:
http://ncse.com/news/tennessee

NCSE AND THE GRAND CANYON 2011

Explore the Grand Canyon with Scott, Newton, and Gish! Seats are still available for NCSE's next excursion to the Grand Canyon -- as featured in The New York Times (October 6, 2005). From June 30 to July 8, 2011, NCSE will again explore the wonders of creation and evolution on a Grand Canyon river run conducted by NCSE's Genie Scott, NCSE's Steven Newton, and paleontologist Alan ("Gish") Gishlick. Because this is an NCSE trip, we offer more than just the typically grand float down the Canyon, the spectacular scenery, fascinating natural history, brilliant night skies, exciting rapids, delicious meals, and good company. It is, in fact, a unique "two-model" raft trip, on which we provide both the creationist view of the Grand Canyon (maybe not entirely seriously) and the evolutionist view -- and let you make up your own mind. To get a glimpse of the fun, watch the short videos filmed during the 2009 trip, posted on NCSE's YouTube site. The cost of the excursion is $2545; a deposit of $500 will hold your spot. Seats are limited: call, write, or e-mail now.

For information about the trip, visit:
http://ncse.com/about/excursions/gcfaq

For NCSE's report on the story in The New York Times, visit:
http://ncse.com/news/2005/10/seeing-creation-evolution-grand-canyon-00771

For NCSE's YouTube site, visit:
http://www.youtube.com/user/NatCen4ScienceEd

TENNESSEE'S ANTIEVOLUTION LEGISLATION STILL UNDER FIRE

The Knoxville News Sentinel published back-to-back criticisms of Tennessee's antievolution legislation -- shortly before the Senate Education Committee was expected to resume discussion of Senate Bill 893 on April 20, 2011. Like its counterpart House Bill 368, SB 893 would, if enacted, require state and local educational authorities to "assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies" and permit teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught." The only examples provided of "controversial" theories are "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

In his April 17, 2011, op-ed, the News Sentinel's editor Jack McElroy described the idea of critical thinking about controversial issues as "Fair enough," but noted that the Tennessee antievolution legislation "narrows down the 'controversial issues' to scientific subjects including origins of life and evolution," adding, "What's up with that?" Taking examples from history, English, and mathematics, he argued that there are both appropriate and inappropriate controversies to address in the classroom. "Thus we come to science," he concluded. "There is plenty of room for critical thinking in each step in this process. But if the thinking involves criticizing the process itself -- and arguing there is a source of knowledge beyond the scientific method -- then we've moved outside of science, and should move out of the science classroom."

In its April 18, 2011, editorial, the News Sentinel described the bill as "as best unnecessary and at worst a deceptive attempt to undermine science education in Tennessee," adding, "The bill is not needed to promote critical thinking because the state curriculum already promotes critical thinking. Competent teachers are not, as the bill's language suggests, 'unsure' about how they should teach topics like evolution. This is a solution in search of a problem." Referring to the verdict in the Kitzmiller case, in which teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools was found to be unconstitutional, the News Sentinel observed, "The judge noted that the focus only on scientific controversies was a clue about the intent. Tennessee's proposed bill suffers from the same shortcoming." The editorial concluded, "The Senate should reject this needless bill and let science teachers teach science."

For the op-ed and the editorial, visit:
http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2011/apr/17/critical-thinking-doesnt-mean-two-plus-two-is/
http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2011/apr/18/science-education-bill-should-face-extinction/

For the text of Tennessee's Senate Bill 893, visit:
http://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/BillInfo/default.aspx?BillNumber=SB0893

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Tennessee, visit:
http://ncse.com/news/tennessee

BILL FILED TO REPEAL LOUISIANA'S ANTIEVOLUTION LAW

Senate Bill 70, prefiled in the Louisiana Senate on April 15, 2011, and provisionally referred to the Senate Committee on Education, would, if enacted, repeal Louisiana Revised Statutes 17:285.1, which implemented the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act, passed and enacted in 2008. SB 70 was introduced by Karen Carter Peterson (D-District 5), but the driving force behind the repeal effort is Baton Rouge high school senior Zack Kopplin, working with the Louisiana Coalition for Science. The repeal effort is endorsed by the National Association of Biology Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Biology Educators.

"Louisiana's 'job killing' creationism law undermines our education system and drives science and technology based companies away from Louisiana," Peterson said in a press release dated April 17, 2011, with Kopplin adding, "Louisiana public school students deserve to be taught accurate and evidence based science which will prepare them to take competitive jobs." The press release pointedly asked further, "How many businesses will locate elsewhere because they want well trained scientists? How many researchers will take their talents elsewhere or never come to Louisiana because of this anti-science law?"

The targeted law calls on state and local education administrators to help to promote "critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning"; these four topics were described as controversial in the original draft of the legislation. It also allows teachers to use "supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner" if so permitted by their local school boards.

Since 2008, antievolutionists have not only sought to undermine the law's provision allowing challenges to unsuitable supplementary materials but have also reportedly invoked the law to support proposals to teach creationism in at least two parishes -- Livingston and Tangipahoa -- and to attack the treatment of evolution in biology textbooks proposed for adoption by the state. Meanwhile, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology urged Louisianans to repeal the law in 2008, and the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology decided to hold its conferences elsewhere while the law remains on the books.

The Louisiana Coalition for Science, in a press release dated April 18, 2011, wrote, "In solidarity with Baton Rouge Magnet High School senior Zachary Kopplin's effort to repeal the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act ..., the Louisiana Coalition for Science supports Senator Karen Carter Peterson's bill, SB 70, which will repeal the law in its entirety. In the interest of Louisiana public school students, the legislature should pass the bill and Gov. Jindal should sign it," urging concerned Louisianans to "call Senate Education Committee members and their respective House and Senate representatives and ask them to vote in favor of SB 70."

For Louisiana's SB 70 (PDF), visit:
http://www.legis.state.la.us/billdata/streamdocument.asp?did=740920

For Repeal Creationism's press release, visit:
http://www.repealcreationism.com/390/legislation-filed-to-repeal-louisiana%E2%80%99s-creationism-law/

For the Louisiana Coalition for Science's press release, visit:
http://lasciencecoalition.org/2011/04/18/press-release-lcfs-supports-sb-70

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Louisiana, visit:
http://ncse.com/news/louisiana

AT LAST: RNCSE ON-LINE!

NCSE is pleased at last to announce the first issue of Reports of the National Center for Science Education in its new on-line format. The issue -- volume 31, number 1 -- includes Michael A. Buratovich's "Recent Advances on the Origin of Life -- Making Biological Polymers"; Kevin C. Armitage's "How to Humanize Knowledge, or CSI: Evolution and Climate Change"; and, in his regular People and Places column, Randy Moore's "Don Aguillard."

Plus Mike Klymkowsky reviews Matt Young and Paul K. Strode's Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails); Joel W. Martin reviews Francisco Ayala's Am I a Monkey?; David A. Reid reviews Randy Moore, Mark Decker, and Sehoya Cotner's Chronology of the Evolution-Creationism Controversy; Robert H. Rothman reviews Allene S. Phy-Olsen's Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design; Stephen P. Weldon reviews Mano Singham's God vs. Darwin; and Matt Young reviews Joel W. Martin's The Prism and the Rainbow.

All of these articles, features, and reviews are freely available in PDF form from http://reports.ncse.com. Members of NCSE will shortly be receiving in the mail the print supplement to Reports 31:1, which contains, in addition to summaries of the on-line material, news from the membership, a new column in which NCSE staffers offer personal reports on what they've been doing to defend the teaching of evolution, and thanks to our donors and supporters. (Not a member? Join today!)

For the table of contents for RNCSE 31:1, visit:
http://reports.ncse.com/index.php/rncse/issue/current/showToc

For information about joining NCSE, visit:
http://ncse.com/membership

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
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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The good god guide

Religious studies

Tentatively, scientists are asking: exactly what is religion, and what is it for?

Apr 20th 2011 | from the print edition

RELIGION is ubiquitous but it is not universal. That is a conundrum for people trying to explain it. Religious types, noting the ubiquity (though not everyone is religious, all human societies have religions), argue that this proves religion is a real reflection of the underlying nature of things. Sceptics wonder why, if that is the case, it comes in such a variety of flavours, from the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to the cargo cults of Papua New Guinea—each of which seems to find the explanations offered by the others anathema.

To bring a little scientific order to the matter, researchers taking part in a multinational project called Explaining Religion have spent three years gathering data on various aspects of religious practice and on the sorts of moral behaviour that religions often claim to govern. The data-collection phase was wrapped up at the end of 2010, and the results are starting to be published.

At the moment, most students of the field would agree that they are still in the "stamp collecting" phase that begins many a new science—in which facts are accumulated without it being clear where any of them fit in. But some intriguing patterns are already beginning to emerge. In particular, the project's researchers have studied the ideas of just deserts, of divine disapproval and of the nature of religious ritual.

One theory of the origin of religion is that it underpins the extraordinary capacity for collaboration that led to the rise of Homo sapiens. A feature of many religions is the idea that evil is divinely punished and virtue is rewarded. Cheats or the greedy, in other words, get their just deserts. The selflessness which that belief encourages might help explain religion's evolution. But is the idea of universal just deserts truly instinctive, as this interpretation suggests it should be?

Mysterious ways

To test that Nicolas Baumard (then at Oxford, now at the University of Pennsylvania) used a computer to check people's reactions to a modern morality tale. Dr Baumard's volunteers read about a beggar asking for alms, and a passer-by who did not give them. In some cases the pedestrian was not only stingy, but hurled abuse at the poor man. In others, he was skint and apologetic. Either way, he went on to experience some nasty event (anything from tripping over a shoelace, via being tripped up deliberately by the beggar, to being run over by a car).

The question asked of each volunteer was whether the second event was caused by the passer-by's behaviour towards the beggar. Most answered "no", the assumption being it was the shoelace, or the beggar's foot, or the car. But Dr Baumard also measured how long each volunteer thought about the answer—and he found that when the passer-by had behaved badly to the beggar and then suffered an unrelated bad incident, volunteers spent significantly longer thinking about their answers than when the passer-by had behaved well, or the beggar had tripped him up deliberately.

Dr Baumard's interpretation, though he cannot prove it, is that the volunteers were indeed making a mental connection, during this extra thinking time, between the passer-by's actions and his subsequent fate. In other words, they were considering the idea that he was getting his just deserts, dished out by some sort of universal fate.

That interpretation will require a lot of further testing. But it tallies with a second result from the project, which looked at the idea that God is always watching you.

To investigate this, Dr Baumard teamed up with Ryan McKay of the University of London and Pierrick Bourrat of the University of Sydney. Together, they checked whether subtle cues about being observed had an effect on people's behaviour.

The eyes have it

In this case they invited their volunteers to rate the acceptability of two acts—keeping the money from a lost wallet and faking a résumé. Half the volunteers were given the task written on a piece of paper which also included a picture of a pair of eyes. The other half saw an image of flowers with their instructions. The upshot was that those who saw the eyes rated both misdemeanours as more serious than those who saw the flowers.

Again, that proves nothing. Prying eyes need not indicate a supernatural watcher, and people are well-known to have their consciences pricked when they are under non-divine scrutiny as well. But it does indicate a mental process that religious ideas of a judgmental, omniscient god would be able to tap into.

To explore that idea further, Dr Bourrat joined forces with Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland. Together, they pored over the World Values Survey, a poll of 87 countries that asks respondents, among other things, about their religious beliefs and the acceptability of a range of infractions, from littering to adultery. The upshot of Dr Bourrat's and Dr Atkinson's analysis was that people whose religion includes an omniscient, judgmental god (Christians, Muslims and so on) regard the whole range of such transgressions more harshly than those, such as Buddhists, whose religion does not. (Agnostics and atheists think like Buddhists.)

Ritual questions

The ideas of just deserts and of the nagging of conscience are both, in essence, private to each brain. But a third religious idea that might foster co-operation is very public indeed. That is the idea of shared rituals.

Psychologists distinguish two types of long-term memory. One, semantic memory, records things consciously learned without first-hand experience—history lessons at school, for example. The other, episodic memory, records memorable events from a person's own life.

Harvey Whitehouse, also of Oxford, thinks these different ways of remembering are harnessed by what he sees as two distinct aspects of religiosity. The doctrinal religious mode, as he dubs the first of these aspects, favours frequent but not particularly exciting rites that allow large bodies of teaching to be stored in a person's semantic memory. That explains Friday prayers in Islam, or daily mass for the more enthusiastic sort of Catholic.

The second aspect—the imagistic mode, in Dr Whitehouse's terminology—relies on rare but highly arousing events that are etched into the episodic memory by dint of their emotional salience. In principle, these could be either cheerful or unpleasant. However, since depths of trauma are recalled more vividly than heights of euphoria, religions should, in his view, prefer the former. Which, indeed, they do.

In one particularly grisly rite of passage, for example, young men belonging to Australia's Aranda tribe are first circumcised and then pinned face down as several of their elders bite the initiate's scalp and chin as hard as they can, before slitting his urethra with a stone blade. That is the sort of thing you are not going to forget in a hurry. You are also going to feel a strong affinity with those others who have gone through it, and perhaps a certain disdain for those who have not—a solidarity-building exercise, then, if ever there was one.

.To test his prediction about there being two basic types of ritual, Dr Whitehouse recruited the assistance of Dr Atkinson. Together, they compiled a database of 645 rituals from 74 cultures, drawing on the Human Relations Area Files, a large collection of ethnographic material. They rated each ritual's frequency and the level of arousal involved. As predicted, though low-arousal rituals are more common than high-arousal ones, there is a tendency (see chart) for ritual behaviours to cluster at either end of the arousal spectrum.

The next step is to enlarge the trove of data further—in particular by adding historical information to the contemporary sort already in it. The researchers may also extend their net to non-religious rituals, from hazing by army special-forces groups, to the intoning of corporate hymns. This is the aim of a follow-up to Explaining Religion, which is due to begin in earnest later this year. It will bring together anthropologists, archaeologists, evolutionary psychologists and historians, and will trawl though 5,000 years of history, recording rituals as it goes.

So, even though Explaining Religion did not actually achieve its rather ambitious eponymous goal, it has found some promising avenues of investigation, and led to that great desideratum of science, more research. Most importantly, though, it has opened to disinterested investigation an area of human behaviour that all too rarely sees it. That alone is worth celebrating. Happy Easter (or other Spring fertility festival of your choice).

from the print edition | Science and Technology

The Crash and Burn of an Autism Guru

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/24/magazine/mag-24Autism-t.html

April 20, 2011 By SUSAN DOMINUS

As people streamed into Graceview Baptist Church in Tomball, Tex., early one Saturday morning in January, two armed guards stood prominently just inside the doorway of the sanctuary. Their eyes scanned the room and returned with some frequency to a man sitting near the aisle, whom they had been hired to protect.

The man, Andrew Wakefield, dressed in a blazer and jeans and peering through reading glasses, had a mild professorial air. He tapped at a laptop as the room filled with people who came to hear him speak; he looked both industrious and remote. Broad-shouldered and fair at 54, he still has the presence of the person he once was: a conventional winner, the captain of his medical school's rugby team, the head boy at the private school he attended in England. Wakefield was a high-profile but controversial figure in gastroenterology research at the Royal Free Hospital in London when, in 1998, he upended his career path — and more significant, the best-laid plans of public-health officials — by announcing at a press conference that he had concerns about the safety of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (M.M.R.) and its relationship to the onset of autism.

Although Wakefield did not claim to have proved that the M.M.R. vaccine (typically given to children at 12 to 15 months) caused autism, his concerns, not his caveats, ricocheted around the world. His belief, based on a paper he wrote about 12 children, is that the three vaccines, given together, can alter a child's immune system, allowing the measles virus in the vaccine to infiltrate the intestines; certain proteins, escaping from the intestines, could then reach and harm neurons in the brain. Few theories have drawn so much attention and, in turn, so much refutation: a 2003 paper in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, which reviewed a dozen epidemiological studies, concluded that there was no evidence of an association between autism and M.M.R., and studies in peer-reviewed journals since have come to the same conclusion. In Britain, the General Medical Council revoked Wakefield's medical license after a lengthy hearing, citing numerous ethical violations that tainted his work, like failing to disclose financing from lawyers who were mounting a case against vaccine manufacturers. The Lancet, which published the original Wakefield paper, retracted it. In a series that ran early this year, The British Medical Journal concluded that the research was not just unethically financed but also "fraudulent" (that timelines were misrepresented, for example, to suggest direct culpability of the vaccine).

Andrew Wakefield has become one of the most reviled doctors of his generation, blamed directly and indirectly, depending on the accuser, for irresponsibly starting a panic with tragic repercussions: vaccination rates so low that childhood diseases once all but eradicated here — whooping cough and measles, among them — have re-emerged, endangering young lives.

And yet here he was in Texas, post-career-apocalypse, calmly discussing his work, and a crowd of around 250 people showed up to listen. As people walked into the lobby of the church in Tomball, they passed by a whiteboard with a message that asked attendees to express their thoughts to Wakefield. Many complied with lavish thanks: "We stand by you!" and "Thank you for the many sacrifices you have made for the cause!" When he finally took the podium, the audience members, mostly parents of autistic children, stood and applauded wildly.

In his presentation, Wakefield sounded impatient but righteous. He used enough scientific terms — "ataxic," "histopathological review" and "vaccine excipients" — that those parents who did not feel cowed might have been flattered by his assumption of their scientific fluency. He also tried to defend himself against a few of the charges laid out in The British Medical Journal — offering defenses that did not hold up before the journal's panel of editors but were perhaps enough to assure an audience of his fans that he did, in fact, have defenses. Some part of Wakefield's cult status is surely because of his personal charisma, and he spoke with great rhetorical flair. He took off his glasses and put them back on like a gifted actor maximizing a prop. "What happens to me doesn't matter," he said at one point. "What happens to these children does matter."

After the talk, a line of visitors snaked down the length of the lobby, his followers waiting to have Wakefield sign a book he wrote about his experience and convictions, "Callous Disregard." "All right, love?" he said, handing the book back to one mother. "Of course," he said when asked for a photo. A pregnant woman in the lobby told me she was there trying to educate herself. Another woman, with tears in her eyes, blamed herself for not working harder to obtain a separate measles vaccine for her possibly autistic child.

Michelle Guppy, the coordinator of the Houston Autism Disability Network and the organizer of the Tomball event, said she believed her own autistic son benefited greatly from one aspect of Wakefield's work: his conviction that untreated gastrointestinal problems could be behind some of autism's symptoms. It was Guppy, it turned out, who thought to hire the armed guards "to make the statement," she said, "that this is neutral ground, and it's going to be civil." Guppy, a mother of two who was elegantly dressed for the occasion, made no pretense of neutrality herself. She narrowed her eyes when she learned that a writer from The New York Times was there to write about Wakefield.

"Be nice to him," she said, "or we will hurt you."

During a three-hour car ride from Tomball back to Austin, where he lives, Wakefield pointed out the curiosities of the area: a roadrunner, burning bales of hay. He was a gracious host in his adopted state, which he finds far more hospitable than the country he left. Sitting beside him was a bottle of Redline, an energy drink that promises a seven-hour boost. "It's great," he told me. "There's no crash."

Wakefield moved to Austin in 2004, a few years after he was asked to leave the Royal Free Hospital, reportedly because he didn't fulfill a request that he duplicate the findings in the Lancet paper. Supporters in Austin reached out to Wakefield after he gave a talk there, which led to his helping to found Thoughtful House Center for Children, a treatment and research center for kids with autism.

But after the General Medical Council found in January 2010 that Wakefield had committed ethical violations — subjecting developmentally disabled children to unnecessary invasive procedures, mishandling funds and failing to disclose conflicts of interest, to name a few — Wakefield resigned from Thoughtful House. The walls of his professional world have continued to close in. He no longer speaks at the popular Autism Research Institute conference, where he has prominently held court in the past. And to that segment of the American audience that may have been unfamiliar with his work until recently, he has been introduced primarily as a villain. When he was interviewed on CNN and invoked "Callous Disregard," Anderson Cooper cut him off: "But sir, if you're lying, then your book is also a lie."

At the start of the drive, Wakefield spoke with the calmness of the self-certain, ready with a counterargument for every concern. How does he respond to the decline in vaccination rates that some attribute to his theory? If only officials had offered a single measles vaccine, he said, there would have been no uptick in unvaccinated children. (Immunologists argue that spacing out vaccines increases the likelihood that children will not receive all of the vaccines and that they could contract a serious illness during the interim.) Why was there no mention in his Lancet paper that initial pathology reports found little indication of bowel disease in the cases Wakefield wrote about? "You have incredibly limited space," he told me in a subsequent conversation. As for the accusation that he received financing for the paper from lawyers intending to sue vaccine manufacturers, he insisted that the money was for a separate study. And why did the lawyer behind the litigation essentially say otherwise on tape? "He was confused," Wakefield explained. His faith in his theory also remains intact, which he made clear when I asked him, in a separate interview, if he still believed M.M.R. caused the autism in the children in the Lancet paper. "Is that a serious question?" he said. "Yes, I do still think M.M.R. was causing it."

For Wakefield, the attacks have become a kind of affirmation. The more he must defend his research, the more important he seems to consider it — so important that powerful forces have conspired and aligned against him. He said he believes that "they" — public-health officials, pharmaceutical companies — pay bloggers to plant vicious comments about him on the Web. "Because it's always the same," he says. "Discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield, discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield." He also "wouldn't be surprised" if public-health officials were inflating the number of measles mortalities, just as he thinks they inflate the risks of the flu to increase uptake of that vaccine. Having been rejected by mainstream medicine, Wakefield, the son of well-regarded doctors in Britain, has apparently rejected the integrity of mainstream medicine in return.

Wakefield never seemed too perturbed by my questions; if he felt any irritation, he took it out on his GPS, which he seemed to think was out to get him, just like his critics. "There's no left turn here, you idiot," he said to the disembodied voice. "Turn right? Why? What's the point?"

Finally Wakefield allowed for an error in his judgment. "I think the press conference is something we could have done without," he acknowledged. It is no small concession. The media response might not have been so inflammatory; vaccination rates might not have taken such a hit; and on a personal level, Wakefield might have at least been spared accusations of provoking hysteria with calculated hype.

But, Wakefield clarified, he regretted the press conference only "because it inflamed the public officials." In the long term, he said, it did not matter; eventually, they — the establishment — would have come after him anyway.

"To our community, Andrew Wakefield is Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one," says J. B. Handley, co-founder of Generation Rescue, a group that disputes vaccine safety. "He's a symbol of how all of us feel."

Since losing his medical license, Wakefield has depended on his followers for financing and for the emotional scaffolding that allows him to believe himself a truth-teller when the majority of his peers consider him a menace to medicine. The fact that his fans have stood by him through his denunciation may seem surprising, but they may find it easier to ignore his critics than to reject their faith in him. After all, his is a rare voice of certainty in the face of a disease that is, at its core, mysterious.

The diagnosis of autism can be devastating. In some cases, a child regresses between 12 and 24 months, baffling parents who do not recognize the child who has replaced the one they knew and has no words to explain. In other instances, they watch their friends' children sit up, babble and reach out for hugs, when their own do not. Unable to communicate, a small percentage of autistic children bite their own arms raw or bang their heads against the wall, for reasons poorly understood.

"We still do not have an explanation for the vast majority of autism cases," says Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who is in charge of coordinating the $120 million worth of research being conducted on autism there. With regard to autism, Insel calls himself a "prophet of humility."

Most researchers say that there is a rise in the number of children who are landing somewhere on the autism spectrum and that only some portion of that increase can be explained by raised awareness of the disorder. In this decade alone, Insel says, diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (which includes mild cases) have jumped to 1 in 110, from 1 in 150; in boys, it's now 1 in 70. He worries that the rate is accelerating. "I would say I am losing sleep over this," Insel says.

What has become increasingly clear to Insel is that something is to blame. Some environmental factor is, or many environmental factors are, interacting with certain gene types, yielding who knows how many different pathways to the same disease. And although many parents think they know with instinctual certainty what that factor was in their own child, researchers "haven't found anything that looks like a smoking gun," Insel says. To him, the M.M.R. vaccine, so aggressively studied since the media splash following Wakefield's 1998 paper, is one of the few factors that can be ruled out. But could it be aspartame? UV rays? Elmo? No one knows.

"With autism, people have done this all along — grasped onto various explanations and reached premature closure on each of them," Insel says of Wakefield's work. "What I take from the Wakefield story is that everyone is desperate to find answers to what we see as an urgent problem. And if I'm really brutally honest about this, we still don't have an answer."

To parents who have run up against unsatisfying answers from the scientific community, Wakefield offers a combination of celebrity and empathy that leaves strong impressions. Michelle Guppy, the mother from the Houston Autism Disability Network who brought Wakefield to speak in Tomball, subsequently spoke to me on the phone about the experience she had at Thoughtful House. She had taken her adolescent son there after a series of mainstream doctors failed to help his constant diarrhea, which required her to change his diaper as many as 10 times a day.

"I mean, I remember, Dr. Wakefield was there," Guppy said, her voice starting to quaver. "And you know, it was just the validation. I don't care if my son was overtreated or cured — just the validation that we as parents who knew something was wrong got an answer. Just the fact that someone listened and someone tried to do something — someone said, 'Yeah, this is not just autism; your son has a real medical issue that we can treat.' I think that validation is all that parents want — just that someone is taking the symptoms we report and looking at them to see what can we do about it."

At Thoughtful House, her son was given an endoscopy, which is considered an invasive procedure. Following the diagnosis, a doctor there (who has also left Thoughtful House and has also come under a cloud of criticism) put him on anti-inflammatories and a gluten-free, casein-free diet. Perhaps her son's system was maturing anyway, but Guppy credits the treatment, and Wakefield, for vastly improving both their lives.

Wakefield's big theory — that M.M.R. causes a bowel disorder, which he calls autistic enterocolitis, that then causes autism — has been dismissed by mainstream medicine. And a position paper published last year in Pediatrics also stated that available research did not support the use of casein- and gluten-free diets in the general autistic population (the diets, adapted in extreme measures, can cause health complications of their own). But Timothy Buie, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Harvard Medical School and one of the paper's authors, felt that the press ignored other key implications in their findings: that there might be a subsection of autistic patients who would benefit from dietary interventions and that the role of the immune system in gastrointestinal dysfunction in children with autism "warrants additional investigation."

Buie makes it clear that he is no fan of Wakefield's; but he does say that Wakefield was a kind of pioneer in disseminating certain useful ideas about autism. Wakefield's least controversial conviction may be the belief that some symptoms of autism — repetitive body movements, leaning over furniture, self-injury — might be symptoms of gastrointestinal distress in an autistic population unable to verbalize that discomfort.

Pat Levitt, a neuroscientist at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California and an autism researcher in whom the National Institute of Mental Health has invested heavily, is also now interested in the role of gastrointestinal dysfunction in patients with autism. He has found a gene variant that is more prevalent in children who have autism and gastrointestinal problems than it is in children who have autism but no digestive irregularities. Levitt does not believe that a faulty gut is the cause of autism, as Wakefield theorized, but that the two problems might develop, in some subset of people on the autism spectrum, in tandem, each a result of a flawed interaction of genes and environment. He does not believe — as some of Wakefield's followers hoped — that by treating an intestinal malady, he will cure the underlying autism. "But is it the case that if you have GI problems, that can exacerbate your child's behavioral issues?" says Levitt, whose recent work has not yet been replicated. "The answer is absolutely yes."

Levitt and Buie said they believed that for years parents' concerns about their autistic children's gastrointestinal problems were too often dismissed, partly because doctors associated those concerns with quackery and vaccine fears and the false hope that a diet could cure the autism itself. When Levitt gives talks, he sometimes puts a picture of Wakefield up on the screen. "Bad science," he then says, "set us back 10 years."

The slow course of gastrointestinal research in autism — still a controversial subject — has fewer public-health implications than dropping vaccine rates do, but it is an interesting footnote, one of the odd legacies of Wakefield's work. He was adored by parents because he validated some of their most agonizing concerns when they felt few others would. But he was also one main reason that those medical symptoms were being dismissed in the first place.

If Andrew Wakefield's followers see him as a martyr, then his chief persecutor, in their eyes, is a British journalist named Brian Deer. Wakefield calls Deer a "hit man," though Deer claims no such agenda (he has been as critical of the medical establishment that allowed Wakefield to get as far as he did as he has been of Wakefield himself). Were it not for Deer, Wakefield might have been nothing more than a scientist who was proved wrong. But Deer, who has been investigating Wakefield since 2004 and who this April won the Specialist Journalist of the Year award from England's Society of Editors for his work, has presented a far more damning view of Wakefield to the world.

In his British Medical Journal series, Deer made the case that Wakefield was not just wrong but also unethical. He said that the doctor misrepresented at least one aspect of the medical condition of every child he wrote about in the study. Wakefield contests virtually every one of those charges, and it would take a book to encompass Deer's allegations, Wakefield's parries and Deer's counterproof. But one charge that Deer argues convincingly is that several children in the Lancet paper had records showing concerns about developmental delays before getting the M.M.R. shot. Deer points out that another child, whose record was more ambiguous, was seen by a doctor before receiving the M.M.R. vaccine, because his mother was concerned that his hearing was imperfect, "which might sound like a hallmark presentation of classical autism," Deer wrote.

In Wakefield's presentation at the church in Tomball, he seized upon this detail as evidence of Deer's overreaching. He pointed out that Deer neglected to mention that the mother also reported to that same doctor that there was discharge from the child's ear. "What does that suggest to you?" he asked the audience. Some parents called out with confidence, "Ear infection," which — those parents were very likely to know — can impair a child's hearing. With that one example, Wakefield did what he does so skillfully: empowered parents as medical experts as he tried to undermine the credibility of his accusers, just enough to convince those who already support him that they are justified in doing so.

You could read Deer's collected body of research on Wakefield and come away with the conviction that Wakefield was an underhanded profiteer who exploited parents and abused their disabled children with invasive tests for the sole purpose of capitalizing on parents' fears about the M.M.R. vaccine. (He applied, for example, for a patent for a diagnostic kit that could test for measles virus in the intestines.) But Deer does not think Wakefield was solely motivated by profit. He compares him to the kind of religious leader who is a true believer but relies on the occasional use of smoke and mirrors to goose the faith of his followers. "He believed it was true," Deer says of Wakefield's theory of M.M.R., but he was also willing to stretch the truth to get more financing for more research. Deer theorizes that Wakefield's maneuverings were all rationalized by his conviction that he was right: "He would prove it next time."

Wakefield now lives in a high-end Austin neighborhood, a private enclave where most homes, including his, enjoy generous acreage and bucolic views of the hills. "You can almost believe you're in Tuscany," he says of the view from his back deck.

A large dog roamed about the house; a very tall son watched an English soccer match; and Wakefield, while making coffee and emptying the dishwasher, continued to bat away charges. He claimed, for example, that a "safer" measles vaccine for which he filed a patent was not, in fact, a rival to M.M.R., which would have been a clear conflict of interest; it was instead an immune-boosting vaccine for those with compromised immune systems, an unfortunate semantic mix-up. ("He is very good at what I call whack-a-mole arguments," says Seth Mnookin, author of "The Panic Virus," a history of the controversy over autism and vaccines.)

Wakefield is a persuasive speaker, even when the listener knows better. As we talked, I couldn't help thinking of a clip of Wakefield I saw on YouTube. The video showed him at a conference in 1999, telling the audience about the time he lined up kids to give blood samples at the birthday party of one of his children: he needed a control group of children who did not have autism, and this was convenient. "Two children fainted," he said. "Another threw up over his mother." For their service, they were rewarded with £5. "People said to me, 'Andrew, you know you can't do this to people; children won't come back,' " he recounted. "I said, 'You're wrong — listen, we live in a free-market economy; next year, they'll want £10.' "

Clearly, drawing blood in that setting was part of no medical protocol that an ethics committee would ever approve. The General Medical Council, in its ruling against Wakefield, said that by engaging in this behavior, he displayed conduct that "fell seriously short of the standards expected of a doctor and was a breach of the trust that the public is entitled to have in members of the medical profession" and deemed the episode "serious professional misconduct."

Wakefield was either naïve or arrogant to think that he could joke on camera about the lengths to which he had gone in the pursuit of proving his theories right. But what is also striking about that video is the sound of the audience laughing. He had won over a room full of parents, who were caught up in the charm of a maverick. It was hard to imagine Wakefield making such a joke now; he has not retreated from his position, but he has shifted his sense of identity from that of a renegade to that of a martyr. He often says that he has stuck by a theory that "has cost me my job, my livelihood and my country." The more he has sacrificed, the more he must believe in his theory — or else what was it all for? A quote from Peter Medawar, a British scientist who wrote a famous critique of a book of specious ideas about evolution, comes to mind: "Its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself."

Wakefield continues to work with a sense of mission and an entrepreneurial savvy. Since leaving Thoughtful House, he has been working on a book about parents who have been falsely accused of Munchausen syndrome by proxy: the world of false accusations, of unheard parents in pain — familiar territory, all of it. He is also trying to raise money for a center for autistic adults. It is a shrewd business move with explosive potential for growth: 80 percent of the autistic population in the U.S. is currently under 18.

That morning in Austin, Wakefield was on his way to yet another contentious interview in New York, this one with George Stephanopoulos. His son, who drove Wakefield and me to the airport, had no plans to follow in the footsteps of his parents and his paternal grandparents, all of whom were doctors: he was majoring in public relations and marketing instead. Perhaps his father's experience had taught him something about the perils of science and about the power of messaging.

It seems very unlikely that any study, no matter how carefully conducted, will assure Wakefield of the safety of M.M.R. at this point: numbers can lie, or be manipulated, and even paranoids have enemies. Didn't they laugh at the researcher who said bacteria caused ulcers? Doesn't he owe it to the children to continue on?

Before leaving for the airport with Wakefield and his son, I took in the view from the deck. The hills looked lofty, peaceful, a little bit blurred in the distance — you could believe, as Wakefield had promised, you were in Tuscany. With a little effort, you can believe almost anything.

Susan Dominus (susan.dominus@nytimes.com) is a staff writer for the magazine. Her most recent article was about the young-adult novelist Suzanne Collins. Editor: Lauren Kern (l.kern-MagGroup@nytimes.com).