Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Public Lands Sale - Request For Comments

The Federal Register just published a request for comments notice on the proposed sales of public lands to help fund provisions of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. Instructions for sending comments are as follows:

DATES: You should submit your comments by March 30, 2006 to be assured of consideration. Comments received after that date will be considered only to the extent practicable.ADDRESSES: You may submit your comments by e-mail to SRS_Land_Sales@fs.fed.us, by facsimile to (202) 205-1604, or by mail to USDA Forest Service, SRS Comments, Lands 4S, 1400 Independence Ave., SW., Mailstop 1124, Washington, DC 20250-0003. Electronic submission is preferred. If you submit your comments by e-mail or fax, you do not need to send a paper copy by mail.

The administration is proposing to sell more than 300,000 acres of public land to private interests - 300,000 fewer acres that individuals will have access to for hiking, hunting, fishing, bird watching, wildlife viewing or a host of other activities.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Friends Helping Friends

The Sacramento Bee has a wonderful editorial on northstate Congressman John Doolittle's recent interview, "explaining" why he was so cozy with Jack Abramoff. Apparently, it's just a case of "friends helping friends":

Two things stand out in Doolittle's Feb. 18 interview with The Bee's David Whitney. One is his view of politics as a matter of friends helping friends. The other is that while he professes a "philosophy of limited government," he is willing to help his friends prosper through congressionally earmarked government contracts.

And toward the end:

Doolittle clearly is entrenched in a political culture of friends helping friends and a business culture focused on snaring public dollars. That might be normal in Washington, but is it what Doolittle's constituents expect him to be doing? Where does zeal to help friends from all corners of the nation leave the mass of his constituents - people who aren't his friends, but are owed his time and representation? How does he square his notions of limited government with his willingness to open the federal trough to a favored few?

Well, that leaves a lot of northstate folks out - we don't earn enough money to be on Doolittle's radar screen. Oh, but beyond skimming as much money as possible wherever he can get it, we peasants should be heartened to hear that his primary goal is supporting efforts to retain " In God We Trust" as our national motto. Well, that's good. As long as those four little words remain, I guess I don't have to worry about rising health care costs, rising eduation costs, rising fuel prices, mounting casualties in Iraq, loss of public lands, and fewer funds to rural counties. Count on Doolittle and his "friends" to know what the priorities are.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Dirty Work of Science

My March 2006 issue of Natural History (sorry, no direct links to the articles) has a response from its Editor-in-Chief Peter Brown to several letter writers questioning Brown’s October 2005 editorial, “Disciplined Change”. In that essay, Brown asks the rhetorical question:

“…you’d think that diversity of viewpoints would be a core value of science – that “teach the controversy” as proponents of so-called intelligent design put it, would be an unassailable principle of science education. Haven’t we learned by now that every opinion counts, that every voice deserves respect?”

His response is blunt, to the point, and dead-on “center bull” (as we used to say when completely removing a target’s bull’s-eye in competitive shooting):

“…science doesn’t work that way. Not for nothing are the branches of science called disciplines. In science, opinion polls don’t matter. Not everyone’s voice is equal. Yes, science is, or should be, open to anyone – anyone with the talent and tenacity to pursue it. And if you do earn your scientific “union card”, you are still not immune from criticism…In fact, the criticism you attract from other scientists, grounded in evidence and the canons of valid argument, is a good measure of how seriously your scientific views are taken.
But scientific debate is not for the uninformed. Scientific controversy is for scientists, to be hashed out in conferences and peer-reviewed journals, not in the elementary science classroom or the high school science textbook”.

One reader considered Brown’s editorial “disturbing”, suggesting that she was not harmed by knowing that “continental drift” was an alternate theory to the one advocated by her own biology teacher many years prior. And she follows by pointing out that many scientists have since come to support continental drift as the dominant theory now. Hence, the obvious question hangs in the air: what’s the problem with “teaching the controversy”?

As Brown points out in response: “teach the controversy” is nothing more than “verbal ju-jitsu”, playing on the sensibility of fairness. But science is not “fair” as Brown has already noted and instead “has its own rules of engagement”. The letter-writer does not comprehend the fact that the intelligent design crowd has never played by the rules of scientific engagement. The irony is that her example of continental drift, if she knew the particulars its rise as the predominant explanation for current continental locations, demonstrates the precise opposite point she is trying to make.

Alfred Wegener first proposed his idea of continental drift in 1912. And when he was soundly rejected by the scientific community what did he do? Write popular books to convince the non-scientific public the scientists were wrong? Appeal to the media and claim there was a controversy the rest of the scientific world was ignoring? Start a publicity campaign to get the idea in high school science classes? No. He did what every decent, ethical, hardworking scientist does: he “...devoted the rest of his life to doggedly pursuing additional evidence to defend his theory”. The theory of plate tectonics overtook existing explanations for one reason and one reason only: other scientists, through hard work and sweat, developed, documented and disseminated mounds of evidence in support of the idea. They developed hypotheses and tested them. Eventually, existing observations could not be explained by other ideas as readily as they could be explained by continental drift. This is what science achieves when the "rules of engagement" are adhered to.

The best intelligent design can currently achieve is front runner of a prima donna popularity contest among the scientifically illiterate. It seeks scientific parity without having done the dirty (and lonely) work of science.

The New Bloglist Is In! I'm Somebody Now!

PM Bryant at B and B is linking to Northstate Science! Thank you!

And take a good look at B and B when you get a chance. He has linked some good information on the efforts to kill Bush's public land sell-off. Fortunately, the response to the sell-off has been negative around northeastern California as well, which is somewhat surprising, given the usual anti-government sentiment of the rural caste. On the other hand, the "payment to states" program (which Bush wants to fund with the sale of public land) is very popular here (and very successful) and even the rural Republicans aren't sufficiently stupid to overlook the fact that a public land sale won't fund the program. (Well, I haven't seen Doolittle's or Herger's responses yet - they actually MIGHT be that stupid). I think there's another current running here: the Plumas and Lassen seem to have been tapped for the lion's share of land sales in California and there's more than a little resentment there...doesn't anyone want anything in San Bernardino???

Thanks again B and B!!!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Discovery Institute Wins....I'm Doing What They Want

I began teaching Intelligent Design in my Anthropology class tonight, in effect doing what the Discovery Institute (and President Bush) would like to see done in every science class. Now, before my colleagues in the science world have a hissy-fit, let me explain why. I’ve toyed with the idea of broaching the subject of ID for some time now, and while I have skirted the issue in class, I’ve never developed a lecture for it, largely because I fully agree that it is non-science. Unfortunately, ID has reached the point of a cultural phenomenon, and sometimes it is instructive to use such phenomena to make a point. I have already spent some time explaining the nature and brief history of science to the students, especially with regards to hypothesis testing, the concept of theory, and the circumstances under which one theory might be replaced by another. Teaching ID might reinforce good science for a number of reasons:

1) ID serves as a good foil to evolutionary theory. What better way to exemplify good science than by paring it off with nonsense masquerading as science? It’s a good way to highlight the differences and expound on why professional scientists don’t take it seriously. And not just “don’t”, but “can’t”. Put on an objective face, take ID at face value as its proponents suggest, and you still can’t do anything with it. It goes nowhere. Even trying to explain the components of ID tonight was quite difficult – there’s very little to grasp and the students are starting to understand this. As several science bloggers have noted, it’s a moving target;

2) Talking about ID is a good opportunity to answer its contrived “criticisms” of evolutionary theory. I think it serves us an opportunity to directly address the Cambrian Explosion, issues of transitional forms, the continued reducibility of “irreducible complexity” and the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. “ID proponents claim THIS about the Cambrina Explosion…but here’s why such criticisms are at best misleading, and at worst completely fabricated…”;

3) I question the argument that most students will take away a message of ID being a legitimate science just because I talk about it in class. Some might…but I’d venture to guess that those who would draw that conclusion will not be swayed by any logical argument against ID in the first place. Most students will retain enough to know that ID has problems in the scientific world, and even if they haven’t encountered it yet, they are likely to at some point. If not the specifics, they’re likely to remember in broad concept that what the ID advocates are pushing in the media is either misleading or downright false. And the smaller proportion of students who really participate in class and take the learning very seriously will have a better understanding of how to counter ID arguments;

4) It provides an opportunity to point out that none of the “scientists” who advocate ID have ever produced a testable hypothesis or contributed to our knowledge about life's diversity and origins. Again, it will be easy to emphasize that there is nothing there to work with, even if you do accept it as a legitimate idea;

My approach to teaching ID is definitely NOT what Behe, Dembski or anyone at the Discovery Institute has in mind when they request that classes “teach the controversy”. I’m really curious as to how ID proponents will react. After all, I’m teaching ID….isn’t that what they’ve wanted all along?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Be Aggressive and Educate

I caught several blog posts this morning discussing science and the need for further education to help battle the anti-science phenomenon. PZ Myers discusses, with justifiable frustration, a news item about Biblically Correct Tours and similar groups formed as an “antidote” to what creationists consider “scientific indoctrination” at museums, zoos and other interpretive centers. Myers correctly points out that it is not just factual nonsense being conveyed by these groups, their tour guides and displays are also falsely accusing scientists of “deep evil”:

The tours are not all fun and games, with the guides claiming that evolutionist thinking supports racism and abortion. This happened on a recent NCAR tour, when Carter told a dozen children and their parents abortion was an act of natural selection carried out by humans.
Other tours suggest Hitler was playing his version of survival of the fittest by favoring whites, and note that museum dioramas of early humans have black "subhumans."
"My contention is evolution kills people," Jack said in an interview. "It's not that evolutionists don't have morality, it's that evolution can offer no morality. Ideas have consequences. If you believe you came from slime there is no reason not to, if you can, get away with anything."



Myers further cites Matthew Nesbit’s proposed strategy for advancing science and lauds the first point on the list: SCIENCE EDUCATION REMAINS CENTRALLY IMPORTANT. He goes on to say:

And I have to admit that educating you, the readers of this weblog, is actually a small part of the task. The real job lies with our public school teachers—they're the ones shaping the education of the next generation—and no matter what we do right now, the evolution-creation struggle in the public consciousness is going to be going on for at least the next 20 years. It's very easy to wreck a school and foster ignorance; it's very difficult to crawl out of the rubble.

At Red State Rabble this morning, under a post entitled “Suppress This!” Pat Hayes noted the hypocrisy of creationists whining about their ideas being suppressed when everyone agrees they’re not legitimate science and should not be included in a science curriculum (any more than astrology deserves time in an astronomy course), while simultaneously censoring their own faculty for teaching correct biology. True of course, but what caught my eye was the following:

Moreover, creation science and intelligent design theory, far from being suppressed, are being taught with fanatical devotion to defenseless children every week at Sunday School classes in tiny, impoverished rural churches and glitzy suburban megachurches, alike.

Finally, in a comment on Myer’s post at Pharyngula, Torris asks the question:

Does anyone have any good examples of how they have successfully reached out to the school teachers and made a difference?… science school teachers - do you have any suggestions on how those of us who don't teach science in the schools can help?

From my perspective in northeastern California there are a number of concurrent themes running through these posts that have helped me develop a strategy for defending science in this area of the country. These include the relationship between science professionals, public school teachers, and education in rural communities:

First, Myers is correct: education is the number one issue every science advocate, but especially professional scientists, needs to address. My experience is that there are two important aspects to this, one that frequently gets overlooked. We certainly need good, qualified teachers in public school science positions who can teach proper biology and who are not suckered by anti-science “alternatives”. More importantly, science advocates at all levels need to openly support those teachers who want to teach good science but are under student, parental, administrative or community pressure to do otherwise. You’d be surprised how many are out there, even in small rural areas like northeastern California, who don’t feel they have any support. If you don’t have a professional science background, help teachers get access to resources you know about; write letters to local media in support of science when issues come up; talk to the teachers and make sure your kids are getting proper science education. If you’re a professional scientist in a smaller community than you have a greater responsibility. Make it clear in the local paper or other news source that you support legitimate science and you are there to support any teacher who wants to teach good science and any student who wants to learn good science. I was inundated with phone calls, emails and just on the street “thank yous” by teachers, students and others for simply making a public challenge to local creationist rhetoric. I know some have the expectation that teachers just stand up and defend science. That’s easier done in larger school systems in big cities. The reality is that small town teachers can’t always afford to do that, particularly where the iron fist of conservative Christianity has taken hold. They live in the same communities. Those of us in the professional community (particularly if you’re like me and really enjoy public confrontations), need to “pinch hit” for teachers in these debates.

Second, there are many ways to educate people in the community, many of which are often overlooked. Offer to give presentations in classrooms (at all levels – you’d be surprised how many good questions kindergarteners ask!); give lectures at local service organizations, historical societies or other venues. I speak to elementary schools, high schools, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Rotary Clubs, historical societies and a host of others. I’ve even offered to speak at church youth groups (no takers yet, however!).

Third, you don’t need to be overt. Not every presentation has to be: “I’m here to challenge creationism and other pseudo-science”. I spend a lot of time with younger kids just talking about science in general, the importance of questioning and skepticism, the need to do further research if you have a question, etc. With young kids sometimes we just look at “neat stuff” like African animal skulls; with the Girl Scouts, it’s been an annual “Nature Walk” at Camporee, gaining an appreciation of the way the natural world works. Just building a relationship with kids and teachers is good start.

Fourth, Myers is also correct that we need to go on the offensive. Challenge everything brought up by the creationists, in every medium possible. If it’s public – challenge it! Yes, that would mean that you need to challenge a Biblically Correct Tour if you should happen to hear one. But play to your strengths. I don’t have the “Type A” personality that would allow me to go nose-to-nose with a BCT “tour guide” in an aggressive manner. I may, however, play the curious passer-by and ask embarrassing questions of the “guide”.

Whatever works for you; and if personal confrontation is a problem, there’s always letter writing, helping with the local science fair, providing solid information to teachers and students (such as all the good stuff on these blogs) or a host of other methods. If you’re not getting a voice in the local paper, start a blog, website or some other forum for your local community (it’s one of the main reasons I started this one - although I wish someone would link here for a little more advertising amongst the blogging community - oh well, if there's one place where natural selection is operative, it's the blogosphere). In the end I have found that being upfront, but polite about your views on science can go a long way. In spite of what we often fear, my experience has been that most people really don’t have an opinion on the subject either way and are just parroting what they heard on FOX news. These are the people you need to address – the pro-science crowd already understands and the anti-science crowd doesn’t want to understand no matter how much real world data bites them on the ass. I can't begin to count the number of students who say to me at the end of my physical anthropology class, "Thanks so much! I never realized what evolution was all about!". There's a large group out there just hungering for someone to talk to them - don't let the creationists be the first ones to do so...

BE AGGRESSIVE AND EDUCATE!

Saturday, February 18, 2006

My Advice to Carl Baugh


Carl Baugh is at it again, showcasing another set of human footprints that will be the smoking gun to make all of us evolutionists back down and admit that 150 years of scientific inquiry has been for naught. I have to admit, I have a special fondness for Carl Baugh, largely because he (and a couple of his advocates here in Lassen County) recently provided me an opportunity to publicly challenge his lack of scientific knowledge. But also because I have never seen someone spend so much time building so great a fa├žade of professional expertise to cover such lack of a scientific background. At least Ken Ham is honest about his background (if not in the information he provides young children).

Carl has now prodded out the “Coffee” track, named after the discoverer of the print, Mr. A.M. Coffee of Stinnett, Texas. The slab of rock shows two human footprints, one adult and a child’s footprint and the rock itself is supposedly Permian in age (approximately 250 to almost 300 million years). In the words of the Creation Evidences Museum:

The discovery created an instant controversy among archaeologists, geologists and anthropologists, because the sedimentary rock system of the entire area is geologically assigned Permian (assumed to be 225 million years old).

Baugh got permission from the owner to subject the rock slab to a CT Scan. The “technical staff” conducting the scan apparently provided the following information (again, from the Creation Evidences Museum website):

With his gracious cooperation the track was submitted to a nondestructive Spiral CT Scan analysis at a laboratory. While the information was being processed through the computer, the technical staff immediately pointed to the screen and emphasized the compression areas under the track and between the toes. The staff also emphasized the clearly discernible five toes, the three arches (medial, lateral, and metatarsal), and the overall distinctive shape of the human foot.

The website contains further information and photographs but none adding additional information. As is usual with Baugh, I am left with far more questions than answers. For being a self-proclaimed degreed “expert” in the fields of archaeology and paleontology, he constantly fails to provide even the most basic descriptive data for any of his “discoveries”, and the Coffee track is no exception. I’ve seen archaeological site records for historic can scatters that contain more information than all of Baugh’s discoveries combined. So, what would the basic information requirements be for something like this? As a professional archaeologist with years of field and laboratory experience, here’s my advice to Baugh:

1) Provenience is the key. Without knowledge of precisely where the rock or artifact came from, the evidence is just that: another rock. Context is so basic to every argument that follows that we professional archaeologists spend inordinate amounts of time establishing it. (This is also why we get so annoyed when pot-hunters collect arrowheads and other artifacts from sites – the information value of the piece is lost and it becomes just another dust magnet for the mantle piece. This is also, incidentally, why laws are established to prohibit pot-hunting). So Carl needs to better establish the location of the slab – is it actually of Permian age? Of course, the original discoverer and several others removed the pieces from their original context, so precise location is unknown. The website implies that Baugh has a good idea where the slab came from, so that needs to be demonstrated empirically and not on a word-of-mouth basis. Yes, I know all the people involved were good Texas Christians who wouldn’t dream of breaking the 8th Commandment under any circumstances, but if Baugh wants to be taken seriously as a scientist, he’ll need to establish the location empirically. (Besides which, there are so many assumptions built into the previous sentence that I can’t even fathom a discussion at this point). Ok, so there’s no map. Are there analytical tests that can establish if the slab is, itself, Permian in age? How about establishing that the chemical composition of the slab is identical to the formation in the area of its location? I’m not up on all the current geological tests that can be done, but we do this to “source” obsidian and basalt all the time. Even failing that, where is the basic description of the slab’s mineral composition in comparison with that of other rocks in the discovery area? Are the rocks in the discovery area even Permian or do they include other period formations, including younger ones? Even if he’s lacking specific data to suggest precise location, Baugh needs to make an empirical argument that the footprint slab might conceivably come from the same area the original discoverer said it came from. Baugh notes the “thin crustal layer of sediment” overlaying the parent material and into which the footprints appear to be made. What is the geologic relationship between the footprint layer and the underlying rock? Is one derived from the other? Is the footprint layer geologically derived or is it artificial? Baugh needs to take time to address these if he wants to gain professional credibility.

2) Is it a footprint? Looks like a footprint to the untrained eye, but in all honesty to someone with a physical anthropology background, it doesn’t look like one to me. Despite what Baugh says on the website, the “footprints” lack the characteristics of true human footprints, including varying depth (to account for the arch of the foot – the Coffee track is completely flat) and no medial “instep” (also to account for the foot arch – the Coffee track shows a complete outline). In effect, the print looks too contrived to be made by a human during the course of daily moving about the landscape. (Next time you have mud in the yard, take a walk across it in bare feet and see if your prints look like the Coffee track). The CT Scan is technological fluff: it shows nothing of any anatomical value, including nothing that Baugh says it shows. Baugh needs to have professionals with the appropriate backgrounds look at the print to determine its consistency (or inconsistency) with modern human footprints. One can do this non-destructively by having casts made and set to a number of laboratories for further analysis.

3) Invite professionals in to take a look. The nature of science is that if your evidence says what you think it says, then others should be able to look at it and come up with the same conclusion. Where scientists don’t concur further study is done until one or the other idea gains additional support. In this way, science advances our knowledge. Hiding the data, limiting access, or not providing sufficient descriptions and photographs only leads to suppositions that the discoverer is hiding something. Who is the “technical staff” who did the CT scan? How did they come by their experiences? Who are the “archaeologists, geologists and anthropologists” who seemed to think these were a) footprints and b) encased in Permian rock? If Baugh really, really, really thinks he has Permian aged human footprints, he’ll go through every effort to allow others to look at and analyze the evidence.

Well, I certainly hope Baugh follows my advice, although I wouldn’t take that bet to Las Vegas. I really don’t think Baugh is interested in demonstrating his ideas scientifically. Like all creationists, he’s most concerned with presenting scientific sounding “evidence” (with all the really important information left out or conveniently “lost”) to scientifically illiterate audiences who are just looking for something to bolster what they already believe. This means peddling the creationist snake oil to small churches in small communities (like he did last year in Susanville). Additionally, Baugh is looking to impress these same folks with a self-promoted education, degree and experience that would appear to put him in the same league with the professional big boys. The problem is that like his “evidence”, the professional background turns out to be fake. He can’t play with the big boys because he doesn’t know how to swing the bat.

(After writing and posting this, I see that Glen Kuban has a draft analysis of the Coffee track already out. Some years ago, Glen demonstrated that Baugh's Paluxy River "man tracks" were erosional features and not true footprints at all. Glen also links to Laurie Godfrey's article on how to identify human tracks. Both are worth a read.)

Grazing Fees

Does anyone else find it ironic that public lands are being offered for sale (the majority of which are coming from our northern California forests like the Lassen, Plumas and Klamath), while the administration simultaneously lowers grazing fees for ranchers using public land? Ostensibly the sale of public lands is to offset the loss of funding for the rural counties program from the president’s budget. Why not raise the money through an increase in grazing fees? Oh, that’s right, I remember now….it is their God-given right to run cattle free of significant cost or environmental regulation. Lower class taxpayers who fund the burden of ranching costs don't have the same rights. Silly me...I forgot.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Evolution Sunday Aftermath

Creationist Ken Ham minces no words about his belief in the Bible as a source of historical information, including the idea that the earth is no more than 6000 years old. Neither does the Reverend Byron E. Shafer of Rutgers Presbyterian Church in Manhattan regarding theology and science:

"I believe that instead of suppressing or falsifying science, we people of faith need to go back to the theological drawing board in order to rethink our existing theology in the light of new data -- just as Martin Luther and John Calvin did nearly five centuries ago"

Ken Ham, Carl Baugh, Philip Johnson and other creationists have spent so much time and energy covering up true science that they have never contemplated the possibility that is not science, but their interpretation of theology that is flawed. In the aftermath of Evolution Sunday I saw this in the New York Times:

At St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, a small contemporary structure among the pricey homes of north Atlanta, the Rev. Patricia Templeton told the 85 worshipers gathered yesterday, "A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all."

In the same article, the Reverend Mitchell Brown, of the Evanston, Illinois Mennonite Church had this to say:

...that Darwin's theories in fact had compelled people to have faith rather than look for "special effects" to confirm the existence of God.
"He forced religion to grow up, to become, really, faith for the first time," Mr. Brown said. "The life of community, that is where we know God today."


Fundamentalists (including Catholic ones) want a dichotomy between evolution and religion - if you buy into evolution as an explanation, you're either an atheist or accept a poor theology. But there is another possibility, one that is largely unstated in the public sphere, but with Evolution Sunday and other efforts is getting more play in the media: that fundamentalism is itself based on poor theology and the wrong path for finding God. Ham, Baugh, Johnson and others who accept such views need the "special effects" in order to have faith. It's poor science, but more than that, it's very poor theology. This is a primitive kind of religion, one that requires its audience to be uninquisitive and ideological. No wonder Ham preys upon children with his sermons - it is the perfect audience on which the slap the shackles of ignorance. Instead of opening minds to possibilities, he encloses them with a straightjacket, so that his faith may find safety in numbers.

Is Religion Entitled To Deference?

I caught an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by professor Stanley Fish of Florida International University. In commenting on Muslim uprisings over the caricatures of Muhammad, he seems to be suggesting that this episode is a result of liberalism’s pervasiveness in society (or at least the media). However, he does not cite the typical assumptions about liberalism’s goal somehow being the destruction, or at least the societal caging, of religious influence in society. On the contrary, it is actually liberalism’s indifference to religion that seems to be the problem.

First let me say that I mentally skipped (indifference?) the professor’s references to liberalism as a religion and his definitions of what liberalism professes to be. Here he seems to be using “liberalism” in the colloquial, pejorative sense more commonly heard on Fox News than in the halls of serious discourse: anything that disagrees with conservative positions. I doubt he has seriously considered that liberalism has complex meaning and philosophical history that is better addressed by others with those kinds of expertise. Setting that aside for the moment, his remaining argument is interesting.

The bottom line is that Fish does not appear to like the fact that some people do not take religious views seriously. He notes the distinction implied in the First Amendment clause:

“It is in the private sphere – the personal spaces of the heart, the home and the house of worship – that one’s religious views are allowed full sway and dictate behavior.

But it is in the public sphere, the argument goes, one’s religious views must be put forward with diffidence and circumspection…Not only must there be no effort to make them into the laws of the land, but they should not be urged on others in ways that make them uncomfortable. What religious beliefs are owed – and this is a word that appears again and again in the recent debate – is “respect”; nothing less, nothing more”


This is not enough for Fish. He sees “respect” as a form of condescension: “I respect you; now don’t bother me”. He suggests that liberalism (again, whatever that is) fully accepts the right to speak openly about one’s religious beliefs, but some line is crossed when those beliefs “might serve as a basis for action or public policy”.

I do not know if Fish is implicitly arguing the opposite (that religious views should not only be given respect, but deference as well) or merely describing the situation as he sees it. Regardless of professor Fish’s position, many in religious communities certainly feel that their faith-based views should be either incorporated into public policy or flat out replace secular law. This is what the Taliban was all about; to a lesser extent, I think this is the road 21st century conservative Christianity is taking as well. I remember Pat Robertson suggesting some years ago, quite unambiguously, that there was something wrong with the idea that people could close their doors to proselytizers. In effect, you are not showing proper “deference” to religious views if you politely shoo Jehovah’s Witness proselytizers away from your door on a Sunday afternoon while you’re watching the football game. Pat Robertson is considered a nutcase even among conservative Christians, you might say. Well, clearly. But how far removed is it for Catholic Bishops to demand that their congregations vote for anti-abortion candidates? I think the examples are just at different distances along the same path.

The private/public distinction is vital. Fish seems to think that religious views should be allotted some kind of special attention in the public sphere as well as the private. Deference should be paid to those who espouse religious views in public. Never mind this poses issues with the definition of religion (given that he defined it as such, would Fish argue that liberalism be allowed deference in the public square?), or whether all religions should be met with equal deference (no doubt the “historic” argument would enter here: since America is a “Christian” nation, deference should be reserved for Christian viewpoints). There is a more fundamental problem if religious viewpoints are allowed special designations. The purpose of a public aspect to freedom of speech is that it allows dissent. Public viewpoints, be they political, religious or other, are also subject to public commentary and critique. Without the ability to dissent, publicly, from any kind of viewpoint, even one that offends, there is no true freedom.

Darwin's Birthday


"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science." - Charles Darwin

I grabbed the image and quote from Red State Rabble this morning, but I've had the same quote as a footer on my work email for a couple of years now. It really describes many of those who are so confident that evolution is a "theory in crisis".

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Freedom to Insult

I have to give credit where credit is due. In light of recent Muslim uprisings over cartoon caricatures of Mohammed, Loose Cannon (Is Freedom From Offense a Right?) stood on the side of freedom to express one's viewpoints, even if they are rude and insulting. She writes:

"....liberty and freedom of speech entail putting up with the sometimes offensive. For Catholics like me, the offender may be something like "Piss Christ," photographer Andres Serrano's artifact that consisted of the suspension of a crucifix in the artist's own urine. I may (and did) shout bloody murder about this. I complained bitterly. I wish Serrano had used his talents in a different way. But I do not have the right to repress this, however odious it is. There is no right not to be offended. The distinct possibility that one will, from time to time, be offended is part of the price of liberty".

This followed from an earlier post in which she addressed the Vatican's comments on the subject:

The Vatican has decried both the cartoons that started the rioting and the riots themselves. The Vatican says that freedom of speech "cannot imply the right to offend the religious sentiments of believers."Nope. Freedom of speech means just that--that you can say offensive things.

I'll take this at face value and say "Amen, Sister". The Vatican was completely wrong about limitations on the right to offend religious sentiments. No doubt Kent Hovind, Carl Baugh and a host of creationists think we in the scientific community "offend their religious sentiments" by arguing that humans evolved over millions of years and were not specially created.

However, there remains a small red flag waving in the far recesses of my mind. Charlotte still occasionally uses the term blasphemy in contexts that would lead one to question how far she might favor advocating some manner of legal constraint on the right to critique religious belief. She's also very magnanimous about free speech rights when Muslim religion is the one being blasphemed. I'd be curious to hear her response if the world media were to start giving lots of attention to the argument that the Virgin Birth story is based on a poor interpretation of Old Testament documents and isn't really what Isaiah was talking about.

So for now I'll give her the kudos...but continue to keep my eyes open.

Fear Anyone?

Heard the Young Turks ask these very casual questions on Thursday: How many terror alerts did we have running up to the election? How many have we had since?....mmmm???

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cannon Fodder

One of my main motivations for starting a blog is the opportunity it provides to counter some of the outright falsehoods perpetrated by a number of people who seem to think they actually know what they're talking about. As an ex-Catholic, I find there are more than a few Catholic writers out there who are particularly frustrating to read when their discussions turn to an analytical view of science in today's culture. It used to be that Catholics were largely at the forefront of encouraging a scientific education (I certainly credit my own career in science as having been jump-started by nuns in parochial school). Now, with the exception of Kenneth Miller (Finding Darwin's God), it's hard to find popular Catholic writers who can actually pen something factual about Darwinian evolution, so caught up as they are in this almost psychotic need to defeat the "secular left". Benjamin Wiker, author of Moral Darwinism and frequent contributor to Crisis magazine and Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things are tops on my list. Don't get me wrong, both bring a sophistication and intellect to their arguments (Neuhaus more than Wiker). But they use those techniques to obfuscate evolutionary theory (and science in general) for their audience, rather than to elucidate solid arguments. Neuhaus, quite frankly, never met an Intelligent Design advocate he didn't like and Wiker can't find a moral crisis that isn't Charles Darwin's fault. Both have been quiet of late in commenting on supposed "flaws" in evolutionary theory, but I look forward to offering counter arguments when the time comes.

On the other hand, someone who brings neither sophistication nor intellect to discussions of science is Catholic apologist, Charlotte Hays (Loose Cannon) over at Beliefnet. In writing these posts I made a commitment to myself to try and avoid ad hominem attacks on people. They really don't accomplish much. But truth is, Charlotte Hays exemplifies every reason that I abandoned Catholicism. Furthermore, it's really clear that Hays didn't make the same personal commitment I'm trying to keep. In Catholic school, we always sang "They Will Know We are Christians by Our Love". Charlotte seems to have sung "They Will Know We are Christians by Our Spiteful Attacks on Those Who Dare to Stand in the Way of Our Attempts to Politically Institutionalize Religious Dogma".

Hays says she accepts evolution, but she's clearly not happy about it. She defends Intelligent Design as being an victimized idea that should have an opportunity to be heard (see her post, "Book Burning: The Way We Do It Now" in reference to the "philosophy" class on evolution and intelligent design recently proposed at a high school in Lebec, Ca. See Ed Brayton's post for what was really being proposed in this class, and why the proposal was eventually dropped). In yesterday's Loose Cannon post she lauded a recent Washington Post article on evolution by Shankar Vedantam, by suggesting it was both "terrific" and "fair to both sides". The centerpiece of the article is a biology professor at a Virginia community college, Caroline Crocker, who teaches Intelligent Design in her biology classes. Meyers and Rosenhouse nail the blatant falsehoods presented by Crocker to her class, so there's no need to repeat them here. Hays of course, thinks two pages reporting falsehoods presented as biology is equal to two pages reporting 150 years of repeated experimentation and research in a wide variety of fields of study, all of which consistently reach the same conclusion, as "fair and balanced". She obviously watches a lot of FOX news.

This is not the most egregious of Hays' posts, but other Catholic readers out there should understand that she is not a reliable source for information on evolutionary theory. I'm sure she'll be posting more comments on the subject...I can hardly wait.

Sage Grouse direct

PM Bryant over at B and B left a comment thanking me for bringing up his post on the Interior Department undermining sage grouse science. He also left a direct link to that post so you don't have to wade through a lot of his other posts (which I'd recommend reading) to find it. Bryant said he had forgotten about that one, a comment which prompted memory of another incident of scientific data running counter to Republican goals: elimination of the Fish Passage Center. From the Washington Post article:

In a surgical strike from Capitol Hill, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) has eliminated a little-known agency that counts endangered fish in the Columbia River.
The Fish Passage Center, with just 12 employees and a budget of $1.3 million, has been killed because it did not count fish in a way that suited Craig.


Like PZ Meyers said: it's worse than we thought. But perhaps we should take these efforts as a back-handed compliment for science - proponents of the current administration must ultimately think science is the only worldview with any meaning, otherwise why would they go through such efforts to change the data, hide the data, eliminate science agencies, underfund science, fund non-scientists to do research, ridicule scientists, create false data to compete with scientific data, or push fairytale "alternatives" in science education? Ultimately, they must be realizing science is actually on the right track... unfortunately their policies are heading in the opposite direction.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

It's Worse Than You Think

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Meyers picked up on another story of the Bush administration's attempt to change the nature of science at the policy level. Most may be familiar with recent media coverage on administration efforts to muzzle the viewpoint of prominent climate scientists on the issue of global warming, notably James Hansen of NASA. However, NASA administrators have once again made it policy that science defend personal religious viewpoints:

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In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.
The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

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Meyers doesn't think this is the exception and cites a link back to Chris Mooney's site, which describes the interview with Hansen and a history of administrative attempts to drastically modify or outright limit scientific assessments on global warming. I would suggest it's even worse than Meyers thinks. Does everyone remember the fracas over the National Park Service's administration pressure to allow a creationist book on display at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center over the objections of scientists and staff tasked with bringing science education to the public? Now, under the direction of Assistant Secretary of the Interior Paul Hoffman, the Park Service is re-writing its management policy guides. These reflect the larger vision expressed by the Park Service for management of our national parks and will guide the manner in which future policies and decisions are implemented. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees have tracked the pertinent documents. As might be expected from a former Cody, Wyoming Chamber of Commerce staffer with no national park experience, the re-writes are anti-environmental, pro-privatization and corporate use of the parks and would eliminate preservation as the goal of the national park system. Such reasons on their own are certainly sufficient to warrant a protest of the proposed changes. However, under Hoffman's direction, the new guidelines also remove any scientific basis underlying park management, including evolutionary theory. In an August 2005 letter of protest from the CNPSR several issues of concern were raised over the new guidelines, including the following:

Eliminating the scientific underpinning of NPS management. The entire draft has a decidedly anti-intellectual, anti-science tone. The drafters' hostility toward sound science is demonstrated by the elimination of all references to "evolution" or "evolutionary processes." The word "qualified" is eliminated when the drafters refer to park professionals who oversee the management of natural and cultural resources. In several instances, the drafters eliminate "scholarly analysis" as a prerequisite for gathering the information necessary for park managers to make informed, sound decisions. The rewrite also eliminates the current requirement that there should be the use of "technologies" (science) used to protect the parks, such as the current research going on at the Grand Canyon to determine the extent of needed cutbacks on noise pollution from helicopters and other low-altitude overflights.

This is exactly what Chris Mooney is talking about in the Republican War On Science: an administration bent on removing any science that is inconsistent with their policies. And these are not the only instances of administration policy affecting the use of science for management in our parks, national forests and other public lands. In 2002 biologists were attacked by members of Congress for supposedly faking evidence of endangered lynx (it was a blind test to see if the DNA signatures could be picked up - anti-Endangered Species Act congressmen, with the help of the media, twisted the evidence and circumstances to make it appear the biologists had falsified information). Not long after that, another Bush appointee to the Interior Department called science indicating that sage grouse had numbered in the millions before settlers arrived in the 19th century "simply a fairy tale, constructed out of whole cloth". She also questioned whether the grouse was dependent on sagebrush during the winter, saying "they will eat other stuff if it is available" (it is uncontested by biologists that sage grouse are dependent seasonally on sagebrush). Meyers is right: it's worse than we think.

Definitions of Intelligent Design

I've been preoccupied updating my science resource and blog links - which took me longer than I would have expected due to my learning curve with blogs. I've got some new posts coming...

In the meantime, I caught the following on Skeptico (who got it from Pharyngula) and which for me sums up the nature of the science behind Intelligent Design:

How do you recognize when something is Irreducibly Complex? Something is Irreducibly Complex when proponents of Intelligent Design can't imagine how natural selection could have produced it.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Evolution Sunday

It should come as no surprise there are no Lassen, Modoc or Plumas county churches participating in the upcoming Evolution Sunday event on 12 February 2006 to discuss the compatibility of science and religion. It could simply be that north state pastors are unaware of the event; however, I doubt the editors at the Lassen County Times will be advertising it with any enthusiasm. From the Evolution Sunday webpage:

On 12 February 2006 hundreds of Christian churches from all portions of the country and a host of denominations will come together to discuss the compatibility of religion and science. For far too long, strident voices, in the name of Christianity, have been claiming that people must choose between religion and modern science. More than 10,000 Christian clergy have already signed The Clergy Letter demonstrating that this is a false dichotomy. Now, on the 197th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, many of these leaders will bring this message to their congregations through sermons and/or discussion groups. Together, participating religious leaders will be making the statement that religion and science are not adversaries. And, together, they will be elevating the quality of the national debate on this topic.

If your church would like to join this national event, please send a note to mz@uwosh.edu. We welcome your participation.

As noted, this is part of a broader effort called The Clergy Letter Project. Anti-evolutionists will be able to cite with glee the 400+ "scientists" who recently signed a letter stating their opposition to Darwinian evolution. These same people are ignoring the 10,000+ pastors, priests, deacons, and ministers who signed the Clergy Letter voicing their opinion that evolution is a "foundational scientific truth" that does not jeopardize Christian faith.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

And So It Begins....

I'm launching my first foray into the blogosphere with this post. Although a long time in coming, my reasons for doing so are many, but result largely from a desire to more actively combat the attack on science that has intensified over the last five years. I have long followed the literature of creationists of all stripes (Old Earth, Young Earth and Intelligent Design alike) as well as that of science defenders, and have occasioned a response here and there: some published and many not. Recent political circumstances have prompted increased attention to correcting the volumes of misinformation masquerading as science that are constantly trotted out in public view. As a result, my letter writing has picked up considerably - establishing Northstate Science will be an extension of that. In doing so, I don't remotely assume a par with the likes of Ed Brayton, Nick Matzke, Jack Krebs, PZ Meyers, Chris Mooney and a long list of others who have been at the forefront of this battle for some time. These folks form the point of an effort to bring education and reasoned thought to a broader audience ( a counter-wedge, if you will) and are clearly the Jedi Masters of the science blogosphere. At this point I can only hope to learn, follow and contribute where I can. Although not exactly sitting on the fence, I thought it was time to formally step up to the plate and start swinging the bat.

My concern here is also, at least for the moment, largely local. "Northstate" is clearly a reference to northern California, more specifically the northeastern corner of the state. My recent experiences with countering creationists, including Carl Baugh, in the local paper prompted me to consider blogging for a number of reasons. First, many of the regional papers are controlled by editors and contributors sympathetic to anti-science viewpoints, making a forum for good science education difficult to come by. In all fairness my response to Baugh's visit and promotion of him as a "scientist" in our local paper was mostly printed in full, but the editors continue to emphasize particular viewpoints. This is certainly within their purview, but I intend this blog as a partial antidote to scientific misinformation frequently espoused in the north state. Secondly, with my recent experiences came a valuable lesson: northeastern California is not the monolithic culture we are lead to believe. I recently wrote the following reflection on my experience with confronting creationism in a "red" county of northeastern California:

On appearances it would be easy to write off such places as Susanville as cultural backwaters where there is a preference for praising Jesus, watching FOX news and where scientific inquiry doesn't extend beyond the first two chapters of Genesis. But the visual distinction between red and blue overshadows a great variability of attitude and belief frequently ignored in the battle over teaching proper science. It would be a mistake for us to assume that red counties do not harbor significant dissidence with regard to Christian conservatism's battle to replace reasoned thought with dogmatic belief. On the contrary, the red states and counties are witnessing an increasing cultural struggle, where debate and dissent are more and more common. These areas are better viewed as ideologically schizophrenic, not culturally secure, despite what the media would have us believe. For professional scientists in these communities the appearance of a monolithic culture makes it easy to feel like a lone voice crying in the wilderness. But as I recently discovered, a lone voice can often serve as a call to arms for a significant proportion of the population.

Falling victim to media assumptions of "red county" invincibility, I had assumed my efforts at a countering opinion would be met with vociferousus opposition if not downright hostility; at best I expected indifference. Instead, what I received was lots of congratulatory praise and more than a few "Thank God someone is finally willing to take on these bastards!". When a local teacher referred to me as "the bravest man in Lassen County" (for doing nothing more than voicing an opinion) I was more than a little embarrassed - but I was also struck by the fact that I had reached an audience (and a large one) that I didn't know existed. This blog is for them: as a source of up-to-date information, a place to find countering opinion, and to let them know they have "back-up".

And so it begins. Where it will go and to what degree it will be successful, we'll just have to wait and see. This inaugural post is probably too long already (ah, blog and learn!) but I'd like to leave with one final thought. As I was writing this and recounting the multitude of bloggers, webmasters, organizations and individuals who have risen to challenge the war on science over the last several years it occurred to me: with the last election it was assumed science had its back against the wall. The creationists and intelligent design crowd are only now learning the painful truth: until recently science hadn't even stepped in the ring.