Thursday, March 04, 2004

Cincinnati Wimps Since I wasted two minutes of my valuable time reading this worthless editorial from the Cincinnati Enquirer, I figured I may as well give all of you the same opportunity. Last year the Ohio School Board fended off a challenge to introduce ID theory into their science classrooms. Their eventual solution involved strengthening the references to evolution in their science standards (which was good!), while also adding a clause that students should "investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory" (which sounds good, but is really just a back-door for introducing creationism).

Of course, if the critical analysis were directed at those aspects of evolutionary theory that do generate controversy among professionals then no scientist would object to this. The trouble is that these controversies generally deal with the more esoteric parts of the theory, and are not the sort of thing that usually comes up in science classrooms. What scientists do object to is teaching about manufactured controversies that carry no weight among knowledgable people, but do allow room for a religious agenda to be promoted.

One especially creless quote from the article deserves special mention:

At the center, again, is the concept of "intelligent design," which proposes that some higher intelligence played a role. Evolutionary scientists scoff at the notion, calling it religious creationism masquerading as science. They say it has no business in the science classroom.

Of course, evolutionary scientists, in general, do not scoff at the idea of intelligent design. They only scoff at the asinine and manifestly false claims made by certain religious hacks. Subtle difference.

Fossil Hominids From the New York Times comes this article about recently discovered fossil finds in Africa. In recent years many of the gaps in human evolution have been filled in by numerous fossil finds. When only a handful of such species were known (such as Homo Erectus or the Australopithecines), creationists used to delight in explaining to paleontologists how this or that fossil was actually either totally ape or totally human (sometimes with a hypothetical nutritional disorder thrown in to explain certain distinctly ape-like features afflicting an otherwise human-like fossil). With more than two dozen distinct species in the fossil record today, it is getting harder and harder for them to maintain this fiction.

Another species has been added to the family tree of early human ancestors — and to controversies over how straight or tangled were the branches of that tree.

Long before Homo erectus, Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy, more than three million years ago) and several other distant kin, scientists are reporting today, there lived a primitive hominid species in what is now Ethiopia about 5.5 million to 5.8 million years ago.

That would make the newly recognizied species one of the earliest known human ancestors, perhaps one of the first to emerge after the chimpanzee and human lineages diverged from a common ancestor some six million to eight million years ago.

The timing of the fateful split has been determined by molecular biological research, and in recent years fossil hunters have found traces of what those earliest hominids, human ancestors and their close relatives, might have been like.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Helena Update Interesting editorial from the Helena Independent Record. This is a follow-up to the book banning controversy I reported on in my February 26, entry. Here's the money quote:

This strategy hinges on the use of the word "theory." Like many words, its meaning varies depending on usage and context. For example, we might say that we have a theory about why a person committed a crime. The meaning of the word in this context is that the theory is an idea or set of ideas which are not proven or even provable. On the other hand the word "theory" in the scientific context means a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena. Probability theory and Einstein's theory of relativity, are examples of the word being used in this way. Evolution theory fits in the second category. It is not simply conjecture about how certain events have occurred. It is supported by facts and a documented record. Yet those who want to see the biblical creation story taught as science play on the term "theory of evolution." They insist that evolution is nothing more than speculation.

As a community we must be very cautious about bending science to fit some people's religious perspectives. Religion belongs in our classrooms; it should be taught in philosophy, history, and a host of other disciplines. But it should not be used to undermine the science curriculum.

Amen to that.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Staph Attack Interesting article from today's New York Times about new strains of antibiotic-resistant staph infections:

A new chapter in the continuing story of antibiotic resistance is being written in doctors' offices across the country, as a group of common bacteria rapidly becomes resistant to the antibiotics that have been used to treat them for decades.

The bacteria are called Staphylococcus aureus, or staph for short. Staph are the most common cause of skin infections like boils and can also cause lung infections, bloodstream infections and abscesses in the body's internal organs.

In hospitalized patients, infections caused by antibiotic-resistant staph have been common for years. Among healthy people, though, antibiotic resistance in staph has not been a big problem. Since the 1970's, doctors have routinely, and successfully, treated staph infections in healthy patients with penicillin-like drugs.

This is why doctors ignore evolution at their peril.

Of course, even creationists acknowledge this sort of evolution. They derisively dismiss such things as "microevolution" by which they mean that it involves small changes within an existing species, but not the sort of large scale changes that have occurred since the emergence of life on Earth.

Alas, they never draw a clear line between "micro" and "macro" evolution. This allows them to dismiss any observed evolutionary change as being micro, and therefore not relevant to understanding large-scale trends. Perhaps one day they'll tell us what principle of science or logic says that natural selection can cause small changes over short time-scales, but can not cause large changes over long time-scales.

Monday, March 01, 2004

The Creationist Snowball If it seems like these evolution/creation dust-ups are happening at an alarming freqeuncy these days, it is because they are. Have a look at this editorial from the most recent issue of Science, reproduced at the ARN web site. It documents some of the recent battlegrounds for this issue, most of them previously reported on at this blog. I particualrly appreciated the following quote from biologist Randy Moore:

Scientists should not underestimate the threat to science from such grassroots efforts, says Moore: "In every survey that I've seen data for, 15% to 20% of high school biology teachers teach creationism. University faculty have no idea what is happening in high school classrooms across the country."

Too true, I'm afraid.

Creationists Endorse Darwin! Former Watergate conspirator and current right-wing lunatic Charles Colson has unveiled the latest Creationist talking point: Darwin was on their side! In this editorial at his "Breakpoint" web site he writes:

Hard as it may be to believe, prominent scientists want to censor what high school students can read and discuss. It’s a story that is upside-down, and it’s outrageous. Organizations like the National Academy of Sciences and others that are supposed to advance science are doing their best to suppress scientific information and stop discussion.

Debates about whether natural selection can generate fundamentally new forms of life, or whether the fossil record supports Darwin’s picture of the history of life, would be off-limits. It’s a bizarre case of scientists against “critical analysis.”

And the irony of all of this is that this was not Charles Darwin’s approach. He stated his belief in the Origin of Species: “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” Darwin knew that objective science demands free and open inquiry, and while I disagree with Darwin on many things, on this he was absolutely right. And I say what’s good enough for scientists themselves, as they debate how we got here, is good enough for high school students.

I suppose it is comforting that Creationists are now, at least, using words that Darwin actually said. They used to content themselves with repeating the old, and totally debunked, canard about Darwin having a deathbed conversion to Christianity.

Of course, Darwin did not say that high school freshman should be the ones "balancing the facts." More importantly, Darwin meant actual facts and legitimate arguments. He did not envision science having to do battle with an elaborate propaganda machine.

The specific claims of Creationists do not become true simply for having been repeated over and over again. All of the standard rhetorical tricks are on display in Colson's piece. It's not hard to see how people lacking any scientific training (like Colson himself, come to think of it) would find them convincing.

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Bush's Junk Science II Chris Mooney is one of the best writers on scientific issue around today. Don't miss this article from today's Washington Post. In it, he discusses how the Bush administration uses the term "sound science" whenever they want to claim scientific justification for a predetermined political goal.

It all sounds noble enough, but the phrases "sound science" and "peer review" don't necessarily mean what you might think. Instead, they're part of a lexicon used to put a pro-science veneer on policies that most of the scientific community itself tends to be up in arms about. In this Orwellian vocabulary, "peer review" isn't simply an evaluation by learned colleagues. Instead, it appears to mean an industry-friendly plan to require such exhaustive analysis that federal agencies could have a hard time taking prompt action to protect public health and the environment. And "sound science" can mean, well, not-so-sound science.

Dig into the origins of the phrase "sound science" as a slogan in policy disputes, and its double meaning becomes clearer. That use of the term goes back to a campaign waged by the tobacco industry to undermine the indisputable connection between smoking and disease. Industry documents released as a result of tobacco litigation show that in 1993 Philip Morris and its public relations firm, APCO Associates, created a nonprofit front group called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) to fight against the regulation of cigarettes. To mask its true purpose, TASSC assembled a range of anti-regulatory interests under one umbrella. The group also challenged the now widely accepted notion that secondhand smoke poses health risks.

On issues from global warming to stem-cell research, Bush and other Republican lawmakers have used science not as a tool for ferreting out the truth on complicated issues, but as a rhetorical weapon for justifying whatever it is they want to do. Especially revealing is this quote from the article:

The phrase "sound science" has also become part of a political sales pitch. In 2002, Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz wrote in a memorandum for GOP congressional candidates that "The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science." The choice of words -- as much as policy -- was the key to swaying public opinion, he suggested, providing a voter-friendly vocabulary list. On climate change, "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed," he added. "There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science." In this instance, "sound science" seems to mean undermining the robust consensus that has developed in the scientific community on climate change -- precisely the opposite of what you'd expect.

The cynicism here is breathtaking. Global warming is not a serious problem that we might, if we act soon enough, be able to do something about. Instead it is an inconvenience, something that makes it a little more difficult for Republicans to suck-up to the polluters who so generously fund their campaigns.

Even worse is that the only reason this propaganda is effective is because too many Americans refuse to educate themselves on scientific issues.

More From Montana Today's New York Times had this lengthy article about a recent, and apparently successful, attempt to teach creationism in a small school district in Montana. The focal point is Darby, Montana, population 754. According to the article, the trouble started when a local minister delivered an anti-evolution talk at a local school. The talk was based on talking points put together by the Discovery Institute, the Washington-based right-wing think tank lurking behind most of the recent attempts to inject creationism into the schools. As the article notes:

Partly because of the contentious dynamics of an election year, partly because of the coast-to-coast influence of the Discovery Institute, local disputes on the teaching of evolution are simmering in states from Alabama to Ohio to California. But with the help of the Internet, defenders like the group in Ravalli County are springing up all over the nation.

Defenders of evolution enlisted the aid of Jay Evans, a research immunologist in the area.

Refuting Mr. Brickley's claims, Dr. Evans said, "took me one afternoon." As soon as he had the information, it went to the rest of the citizens' committee, and from there to the wider community.

Mr. Brickley was the minister who started all the trouble. This quote is the crux of the entire matter. For professionals working in various areas of biology, the claims made by the Discovery Institute are easily seen to be false. But the lay audiences who form the target of Discovery's media blitz are not likely to know the fine points of modern biology. Instead they only know that they've never really liked the idea of having evolved from an ape-like ancestor, and here are some people with PhD's telling them they didn't.

Unfortunatly, as so often happens, ignorance carried the day:

Still, after three long evenings of often anguished public comment in late January and early February, a preliminary vote of the school board was 3-2 to add a revision to school policy suggested by Mr. Brickley.

The revision specifies that teachers "assess evidence for and against" the theory of evolution. Gina Schallenberger, the board's chairwoman, said the change was needed because evolution is "not two plus two equals four," that reputable scientists themselves disagree over whether the theory is correct.

Of course, the line "assess evidence for and against" the thoery of evolution is straight out of the Discovery Institute's playbook. The implication is that the pro-science side of the debate is trying to censor evidence supporting religion. In reality, there simply is no evidence against the evolutionary view of the world.

The article devotes considerable space to the tension this dispute has caused in the town, and I recommend following the link to the rest of the article. I do feel compelled to insert one more quote, however:

By Jan. 21, the Citizens for Science had arranged for its own professionally produced talk in the gym, featuring Dr. Alan Gishlick, a paleontologist at the National Center for Science Education. Mr. Lebowitz, the high school senior, said he was relieved when nearly as many people showed up as for Mr. Brickley's talk.

Since I attended nursery school with Dr. Gishlick, roughly 25 years ago, I can certainly vouch for his honor and integrity.