Friday, June 20, 2003

Phony Ossuary A while back there was a big splash over an ossuary (a sort of box used to inter the bones of departed family members) that was discovered in Israel. The inscription on the box, written in Aramaic, said "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus". The box received front-page coverage in many newspapers, partly because the box itself was quickly identified as being of the right age, and partly because it would serve as one of the few pieces of extra-Biblical evidence that Jesus even existed.

Well, it's a fake. The inscription that is. According to The New Scientist:

"`The inscription appears new, written in modernity by someone attempting to reproduce ancient written characters,' a statement issued by Israel's Antiquities Authority says. `The inscriptions, possibly inscribed in two separate stages, are not authentic.' "

The article goes on to note:

"Gideon Avri, chairman of the investigating committee, said the most compelling evidence that the inscription was not genuine came from an examination of thin layers of limestone that had built up on the surface of the ossuary since it was created. "`The incisions showed modern elements, indicating it was done by a skilful artist in recent years,' he told New Scientist. The box itself is thought to date from the first century AD. The Israel Antiquities Authority has scores of similar specimens in its vaults."

You can be sure that the media, to the extent that it will cover this story at all, will bury it pretty deep.

Creationism in Minnesota Like many states, Minnesota is currently rewriting its state education standards. These standards are intended to delineate what students are expected to know after completing various grades. It looks like Creationism will once more rear its ugly head as the science standards are rewritten.

For a brief summary of the recent trevails experienced by the committees rewriting Minnesota's standards, see this article. The article describes the views of Cheri Pierson Yecke as follows

"She said the state standards shouldn't address creationism, which is based on the belief that God created the world in six days. The other main theory, evolution, describes development of life on Earth from single-celled organisms over about 3.5 billion years."

That's comforting. Alas, the National Center for Science Education is reporting that Yecke, while being interviewed on a Minnesota radio station said,
"every local district should have the freedom to teach creationism if that is what they choose."

The NCSE article can be found here.

Balancing the need for scientific integrity with the desire to have local control over education is a difficult one. But surely there are some things that would be considered so absurd that the state has a right to limit a district's right to teach them. For example, if school's wanted to teach that the Earth is flat or that the Moon is made of green cheese the state would surley have the right to step in. Creationism is no less absurd than either of those propositions.

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Bush and The EPA II Just in case you weren't certain that the Bush administration is perfectly willing to discard scientific information it finds annoying, check out this article from The New York Times. It seems the Bush administration, unhappy that a soon-to-be-released EPA report concluded that pollution is a contirbutor to global warming, decided simply to excise that section from the report. Writes the Times:

"The report, commissioned in 2001 by the agency's administrator, Christie Whitman, was intended to provide the first comprehensive review of what is known about various environmental problems, where gaps in understanding exist and how to fill them.

Agency officials said it was tentatively scheduled to be released early next week, before Mrs. Whitman steps down on June 27, ending a troubled time in office that often put her at odds with President Bush.

Drafts of the climate section, with changes sought by the White House, were given to The New York Times yesterday by a former E.P.A. official, along with earlier drafts and an internal memorandum in which some officials protested the changes. Two agency officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the documents were authentic.

The editing eliminated references to many studies concluding that warming is at least partly caused by rising concentrations of smokestack and tail-pipe emissions and could threaten health and ecosystems.

Among the deletions were conclusions about the likely human contribution to warming from a 2001 report on climate by the National Research Council that the White House had commissioned and that President Bush had endorsed in speeches that year. White House officials also deleted a reference to a 1999 study showing that global temperatures had risen sharply in the previous decade compared with the last 1,000 years. In its place, administration officials added a reference to a new study, partly financed by the American Petroleum Institute, questioning that conclusion."

The article goes on to quote departing EPA Chief Christie Whitman as follows:

"The first draft, as with many first drafts, contained everything....As it went through the review, there was less consensus on the science and conclusions on climate change."

One suspects the lack of consensus features scientists on one side, with a collection of right-wing political hacks on the other.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Peppered Mice? From The New York Times comes this article about
Rock Pocket Mice in the American Southwest. Most of these mice sport a sandy beige color, perfect for camouflaging themselves against a desrt background.
But in certain areas, ancient lava flows have darkened the ground to a point where the mice are far more visible to predators, especially owls. In these areas a dark form of the mouse has evolved.

This case parallels that of the peppered moth, in which a dark form of the normally light-colored moth evolved in response to industrial pollution that darkened the trees on which the moths reside. Creationists have seized on the peppered moth example, pointing out that more recent research has suggested that the adaptive signifcance of dark coloration may be more complicated than mere camouflage from predators. In their telling this constitutes some great scandal.

Anyway, the present example is especially significant for two further reasons. The first is that the selection pressures to which the mice were responding were entirely natural. In this they differ from several other notable cases of rapid evolutionary change. For example, the pollution to which the moths responded was man-made, as were the pesticides to which certain strains of fruit flies developed resistance. The second reason is that geneticists were able to identify the precise genes responsible for the color change.

Perhaps the mice will become a new textbook example of evolution in action.