Posts Tagged ‘Creationism’

Covert ops in the war on science

December 5, 2008

I stumbled upon this on Richard Dawkins’ website: a collection of Evolution Outreach Projects by Colin Purrington of Swarthmore College. These are a must-see.

A lot of it is cute little stickers and temporary tattoos of Darwin, but at the heart of the effort is a push to get evolution taught to young children. Purrington advocates what every education expert should already know: children are perfectly capable of understanding evolution, and the only reason they do not learn about it is indoctrination in their early years and the delay into high school of the introduction of the concept. As Purrington says:

The notion that young kids cannot understand evolution is a myth perpetuated by those who don’t want kids to understand evolution.

I’ll be starting a unit on evolution soon in my high school biology class, and I’ll certainly be using some of these materials. (I should be right in time for Darwin Day!) Check it out; it’s wonderful, and the author’s self-effacing humor is quite charming.

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Because I have too much free time

December 5, 2008

A fellow named Jeff left a comment on an earlier post of mine, regarding some actions taken by Barbara Forrest of the National Center for Science Education to counter a creationist Trojan Horse bill in Louisiana. (The bill made it into law, as the reader may recall. We’re still waiting for the hammer of the courts to fall upon that one.)

Jeff’s comment was completely unrelated to that post. Instead, it was a self-styled “critique” of a speech Forrest apparently gave at a Southern Methodist Church. In the interest of promoting good science, and because I have little better to do, I have deleted Jeff’s comment and reproduced it here. I have attempted to counter his specious and often ludicrous arguments with some semblance of objective rationality.

It’s long. I hope you have too much free time as well!

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The Distant Origin Theory

November 2, 2008

Lately, my preferred method of wasting time has been watching old episodes of Star Trek Voyager. I never watched it during its original run, but, consummate nerd that I am, I recently decided to check it out. I’ve found much of it decent, some of it appallingly bad, and some more of it rising to the heights of sci fi excellence characteristic of Star Trek at its best. One such episode had me rapt: Distant Origin. I found fascinating parallels with issues in the news today.

The episode concerns a race of reptilian beings, the Voth, who carry the conceit (they call it “Doctrine”) that they were the first sentient beings to evolve in their area of space. A professor of the Voth subscribes to the “distant origin theory,” which holds that they actually arose on a distant planet, and spread through the galaxy over millions of years, forgetting their heritage in the time. He finds evidence to support his theory, in the form of bones left by a strange creature that happens to share a large portion of its genome with the Voth. The bones, of course, belong to one of the Voyager crew.

It turns out later on that the reptilian race is descended from the dinosaurs. Supposedly a lineage of hadrosaurs evolved sophisticated intelligence, built spacecraft, and escaped the dinosaurs’ extinction. (The dinosaurs’ real descendants, birds, are not mentioned.) The episode, like much of TV and the US in general, shows a sad lack of understanding of evolution. There’s one scene on the holodeck in which the captain asks the computer to extrapolate the evolution of hadrosaurs 65 million years into the future, as if that were possible outside the context of an environment populated with other organisms, and given the random nature of mutation. Still, there was one thing the episode got right, and spectacularly.

The Voth, as I noted, believe that they arose in the section of space they now inhabit. As it turns out, they are extremely hostile to anything that challenges this ideology. They charge the professor with heresy, and refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence in support of the distant origin theory. Beginning to sound familiar? Yep, it’s a perfect vision of what would happen to science if the creationists were to gain control. All findings would be run through the filter of dogma, and those that didn’t fit would be censored and ignored. Chilling, to be sure. The selective blindness and moral cowardice of the creationist movement is perfectly captured in the opposition of the Voth’s ruling council to the obvious truth.

I amused myself with the idea of showing this episode to fundies, to give them a mirror into their own way of thinking. My amusement was curtailed when I realized that most fundies would probably just see themselves in the poor, persecuted professor, and see the evil, godless Darwinists in his oppressors. The selective reality filter of the dogmatic mind is a powerful thing.

FYI: GOP VP pick is pro-ID

September 4, 2008

This will be very old news by the time this post is automatically published, but I’m frightened enough not to care. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s pick for running mate, is vocally supportive of teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools.

This issue is unlikely to concern most Americans; Palin’s stance on energy policy and abortion will probably get a lot more press. Be that as it may, if you needed another reason not to vote for John McCain, this is it. Palin favors injecting religion into science class. She favors the manufacturing of scientific controversy where none exists. By the logic with which she defends her position on creationism, we could just as easily teach astrology and flat earth theory (as the article linked above points out.) In short, her position is in direct opposition to good science, whether she realizes it or not.

Like my mother before me, I have never voted for a successful presidential candidate. I hope the curse will be lifted this time. Obama’s my man, and not just because McCain isn’t; his position on science is very positive, and very much what we need.

The seduction of compatibilism

August 24, 2008

Dr. PZ Myers writes about a New York Times article about a science teacher in Florida with the gumption to teach evolution in the face of religious opposition. It’s a fascinating story, highlighting the teacher’s uncertainty of how to teach evolution without alienating the students, and the obstinance on the part of some of the students when faced directly with the evidence. The article also exposes the horrifying degree to which community groups attempt to undermine science education. Mention is made of a pastor who handed out copies of the Answers in Genesis tract “Evolution Exposed” to graduating seniors; the pamphlets, of course, ended up circulating in biology class.

As I will begin teaching a biology class of my own for the first time in a few weeks (gasp!), this stuff is especially terrifying to me.

The Pharyngula post, however, does not deal exclusively with the obstacles thrown in the paths of science educators. Rather, it ravages what Prof. Richard Dawkins has called the “seduction approach:” avoiding any offense of students’ faith by assuring them that evolution is compatible with religion. It certainly seems like a sensible approach. One of the creationists’ most handy tricks is to convince believers that accepting evolution leads to atheism, and is therefore a one-way ticket to hellfire. The most obvious counter to this tactic, it would seem, is to contradict it: evolution does not lead necessarily to atheism. This counterattack has the added benefit of being demonstrably true, as there are numerous religious believers who have no beef with evolution, including the oft-cited biologist and Roman Catholic Ken Miller, and the Pope himself.

Dr. Myers, like Prof. Dawkins, has no time for the compatibilist approach, and for good reason. He writes of the ubiquitous call to respect people’s beliefs in this country, and how that exemption from criticism of religion allows creationists to poison the well against evolution. He calls this “the dark evil gnawing at the heart of the American public,” and continues:

It’s an effective evil, too, since most people cower before it and fear to declare it the bane of public education. Even many who don’t believe are reluctant to call it out — it will antagonize the believers, they say, they won’t accept the all-important proximate message of science if we alienate them from their precious myths and superstitions. So we continue this game of science proponents edging delicately around the central issue while the advocates of religion feel no constraint at all, and attack reason by hammering our children with unrepentant, unapologetic lunacy.

Because religion is exempt from criticism, creationists are allowed to preach their ascientific rubbish to our children without rebuke, while those trying to teach good science come under fire. Dr. Myers holds, and I emphatically agree, that it’s time for the critical curtain to fall. Religious claims must be subject to the same rigorous scrutiny that we bring to bear on all other ideas, be they scientific, economic, political, etc. Then, and only then, will creationism die its deserved death, as alchemy and geocentrism have already done.

Why Darwin Matters

August 24, 2008

On a shopping trip with my girlfriend south of the border (a common excursion for Canadians, given the recent relative strength of their dollar), I picked up two books I’ve been anxious to read: Why Darwin Matters, by Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Shermer, and Your Inner Fish, by paleontologist Neil Shubin. I finished the former in less than 24 hours, and though I’m a couple years behind the game, I’ll be writing my impressions here.

Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design is at its heart a book of persuasion. shermer divides the world into three types of people:

True Believers, Fence Sitters, and skeptics. Religious True Believers will never change their minds no matter what evidence is presented to them, and science-embracing skeptics already accept evolution. The battleground is for the Fence Sitters – those who have heard something about a claim or controversy and wonder what the explanation for it might be.

Thus, from the start, the book is not really directed at me, as I whole-heartedly accept evolution. However, I quite enjoyed reading it, as evidenced by the fact that I could hardly put it down. Here’s why.

First, Shermer presents an entertaining history of intelligent design and creationism in the United States, and why they persist in the face of overwhelming evidence for evolution. In so doing, he provides riveting accounts of William Jennings Bryan’s boisterous prosecution of the Scopes trial, and most memorably of all a debate between he and the namesake of the Hovind Scale, the fast-talking creationist and current jailbird Kent Hovind. His account of this debate can also be found on the website of Skeptic Magazine.

In the meat of the book, Shermer systematically dismantles the arguments for Intelligent Design, finding them all unequal to rigorous standards of science. He then exposes the real agenda behind the ID movement, most memorably by recounting the words of Discovery Institute fellow William Dembski at the annual conference of the National Religious Broadcasters:

…intelligent design opens the whole possibility of us being created in the image of a benevolent God… The job of apologetics is to clear the ground, to clear obstacles that prevent people from coming to the knowledge of Christ… And if there’s anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ as the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian naturalistic view.

To close as Shermer does throughout the book, Q. E. D.

Finally, and most challengingly for me, Shermer devotes a large portion of the book to explaining why evolution is perfectly compatible with both Christianity and conservativism. The reason for the first is obvious: most Americans and virtually all American creationists are Christian, and to sell evolution to doubtful Christians is to convince them that it does not contradict their faith. The need for the second is less obvious. What reason would a conservative have for doubting evolution, except that most conseratives in the United States are Christian? Still, Shermer cites poll data showing that some 60 percent of Republicans are creationists. Clearly something is at work here. To woo conservatives to the side of evolution, Shermer cites 19th century economist Adam Smith, whose posited “invisible hand” works in precisely the same way as Darwin’s natural selection. (In his review of Expelled for Scientific American, he recounts memorably his reminder of this fact to Ben Stein, during his interview for the film.)

I say that this part of the book was challenging for me because I have difficulty with the arguments for the compatibility of religion and evolution. It is certainly true that there is nothing in evolution, or in science in general, that precludes the existence of a god, but this is because nothing in science could do so; God is by definition not a part of the natural universe, and so not amenable to empirical observation. God is therefore superfluous, unnecessary, a cheap rhinestone pasted on the scientific edifice to increase its appeal to the religiously-minded. Still, as long as God is technically compatible with science, and as long as most humans believe in one god or another, the smartest tactic may be to stress the compatibility point, and confront creationists on their so-far successful ploy of equating evolution with atheism.

Having said all this, by far the most entertaining part of the book for a scientific True Believer like me is its coda, Genesis Revisited, in which Shermer rewrites the book of Genesis to fit in with creationists’ insistence on its literal truth. Here’s a representative excerpt:

And God saw that the land was barren, so He created animals bearing their own kind, declaring Thou shalt not evolve into new species, and thy equilibrium shall not be punctuated. And God placed into the rocks, fossils that appeared older than 4004 BC that were similar to but different from living creatures. And the sequence resembled descent with modification. And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

Q. E. D.

I recommend the book heartily, whether you are a skeptic or a Fence Sitter; it will entertain either variety. Hell, I recommend it to the creationist True Believers as well. Shermer was such at one point, and you never know when a tendril of truth will sneak through a crack in the stone wall of denial.

On freedom of choice

August 22, 2008

There are many reasons that account for creationism’s persistence in the United States. Most of them stem from the active lobbying of former “creation science” and now “intelligent design” proponents, who today work very hard to see that Americans equate evolution with atheism, and choose God over godless science. However, to my mind, none of these reasons accounts for the fact that Americans think there ought to be an alternative to evolution in the first place. This point bears some expanding before I continue.

There are of course many examples of two or more theories competing for acceptance in the scientific community. Earlier in the last century, for example, steady state models of the universe competed with the Big Bang model, and eventually the evidence for the Big Bang won out. However, it should be obvious that every question in science will have only one answer. Given that that is so, why should Americans, or anyone else, expect there to be alternative theories to evolution, whose evidence has proven out repeatedly over 150 years?

I submit that the answer lies in our love of freedom; specifically, freedom of choice.

We’re used to choosing among 300 different kinds of ketchup in the grocery store, and we glorify in it. The availability of such choice creates competition among ketchup makers, forcing them to keep quality high and prices low. The same kind of choice, with the same results, pervades every available product. It also pervades religion, another commodity which many Americans see as a matter of choosing among available options. Nw that I set it down in words, it seems odd to me that people would feel at home choosing among positions on the nature of humanity and its place in the universe, just as they would choosing among flavors of Pop Tarts, but such is the power of freedom of choice.

Now we come to creationism. Americans are brought up to think that it is their inviolable right to have the freedom to choose among a range of options, in products, in employers, in relationships, and in religion. It is no large step to extend this way of thinking to scientific theories. If we are free to choose among religions, which after all make factual claims about the universe and our place in it, based only on our own personal preferences, why shouldn’t we be free to choose among scientific theories on the same basis? I submit that this is what creationists have done. Seeing creationism and evolution as two equally valid theories, they choose the one most pleasing to them personally.

I’m sure I have grossly simplified many matters here, not the least of which is the fact that a good number of Americans do not in fact consciously choose their religion, but receive it whole cloth from the one thing no one is free to choose: their parents. Still, I believe this deeply felt sense of entitlement to choice plays a part. In combating it, then, it falls to educators (like me) to impart on children more stringent criteria for choice, among them empirical evidence and rational argument. They will choose in any case, and it falls on us to see that they choose wisely.

God bless Texas

July 28, 2008

I leave the country for a few weeks, and science education falls apart.

That’s not quite fair: the impending destruction of Texas’ science standards has loomed for quite some time. But the first meetings regarding the construction of the new curriculum have taken place, and the dame should be complete by the end of the summer.

At issue, of course, is the push by the Board of Education chair Don McLeroy to teach the “strenghts and weaknesses” of evolution. This, of course, is another “academic freedom”-esque smoke screen for shoehorning “Goddidit” arguments into science classrooms. The Austin Chronicle has an excellent opinion piece documenting McLeroy’s inanity; trust me, read it right now.

My uncle who lives in Houston tried to convince me that I should teach in Texas (instead of in Washington, where I will begin teaching in September.) Indeed, Texas compensates teachers much more generously than Washington, and the Houston area is beautiful by all accounts. But I think I would need a powerful martyr complex to begin my career in a state whose board of education is headed by a creationist lackwit. Severe kudos and mad props to all science teachers who give evolution the central treatment it deserves.

Some quickies

June 28, 2008

It’s just busy, busy, busy this week! Yesterday I made it home from the Washington State LASER Strategic Planning Institute, and in just about an hour I’ll be on my way to West Yellowstone, Montana, to serve as a groomsman in my father’s wedding. There will be family from much of the United States there, most of whom I haven’t seen in a very long while, so I’m very excited. The downside, of course, is that I have less time to make posts.

Because I have little time, I’ll just post some links to interesting (and perhaps disturbing) things that have happened in the last 24 hours.

First, the bad, though unsurprising, news: SB 733 has been signed into law. Governor Bobby Jindal (with a name like that, how can you stay mad at him?) signed the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act into law, handing creationists a license to attack sound scientific theory in the classroom on frivolous religious bases.

Of course, the Discovery Institute, which has been instrumental in enacting these “academic freedom” bills around the country, is trying to distance itself from SB 733’s success. They’re claiming the bill isn’t about intelligent design, but simply about exposing students to the debates scientists themselves undertake. This is bullshit, because the Louisiana science standards, and those of every other state I’ve ever heard of, already hold that students should be exposed to legitimate issues in science. What the Discovery Institute really wants is for students to be opposed to illegitimate issues, such as global warming, and the perennial favorite, evolution.

In other news, Pharyngula writes on a frightening ruling in the Texas Supreme Court. A church which had been prosecuted for torturing a 17-year-old girl was found innocent by the high court, because they were conducting an exorcism. Apparently, in the great state of Texas, you’re allowed to horribly traumatize a child if you think she has demons in her head. Read the Pharyngula piece, and mourn our nation’s sanity.

After all that gloom, here’s something to cheer you up! I’ve been meaning to link to this webcomic for a long time. It’s called Kawaii Not, and I love it, because it perverts the saccharine cuteness that pervades so much of design these days. This particular comic is my favorite.

Hope that helps!

Conservapedia feels teh pwnag3

June 25, 2008

Now, it’s true that I first heard about this on Pharyngula, but if I used my blog just to post links to all the interesting stories I’ve seen on Pharyngula, I might as well just replace all my posts with this: http://www.scienceblogs.com/pharyngula. So, instead, I’ll link you to Conservapedia.

No, don’t leave! I promise you’ll like this.

You may have heard about Dr. Richard Lenski’s discovery of the evolution of a novel trait in a laboratory strain of E. coli. You may also have heard that Andrew Schlafly of Conservapedia has made a ludicrous demand to see Dr. Lenski’s data. This despite the fact that Schlafly has no science background, no qualifications to examine the data, and has not even read Dr. Lenski’s paper.

Dr. Lenski sent a very polite reply, in which he kindly asked Mr. Schlafly to read his paper. It’s only reasonable, after all, that you should read a scientist’s paper if you intend to critique his research. Mr. Schlafly’s reply? Another demand to see the data, despite no indication that he knows what to do with it, and despite the fact that, by all accounts, he still hasn’t read the paper.

Dr. Lenski’s second reply is the real money in this piece. He’s still polite, but in this letter he’s taken on the tone of an exasperated parent, scolding a child who refuses to behave. It’s fairly long, but you simply must read it. I’ve never seen a better takedown of a creationist wingnut.

Once you’ve read it, reflect on the tagline for this exchange on the Conservapedia main page:

Lenski’s latest response to a request for his data is revealing … about Lenski’s attitude. Take a good look at the attitude our tax dollars are paying for.

Dr. Lenski, a professional scientist, takes all this time to write a measured response to the ludicrous demands of a creationist whackjob, and Mr. Schlafly accuses him of attitude? That’s more than my daily recommendation of irony, that is.