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Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Ignorance on Parade

Sara Kolb Hicks was one of the *ahem* "Parade of Ph.D. Biologists" who testified last week in favor of retaining Texas's policy of teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. She has a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Rice University and a B.S. in Biology from Louisiana Lafayette University.

Someone with those impressive credentials surely knows quite a bit about the topic of evolutionary biology, right?

Sadly, no.

After Hicks finished her testimony, Board member Barbara Cargill asked her for examples of "true scientific weaknesses" of evolution. Here is how Hicks responded:

Hicks: Well, what I think should be done, personally, is...they should take the examples that are given in the textbooks that support evolution, and if they are controversial, I think it should be said that they are controversial. To me, that is a weakness. That you're keeping...that's it's not one hundred percent backed by scientists. If its...kind of the peppered moths being dead and pinned on the tree, I think that should be mentioned. Instead know there's some critical pieces that are being left out of the textbooks, and those are weaknesses to me. That's what a weakness is.

Cargill: Could you give a couple more examples?

Hicks: Haeckel's embryos?

Cargill: Okay. We've heard that.

Hicks: Um...

Cargill: What are...what are more?

Hicks: Um...

Cargill: Those are ones that I'm familiar with. Are there any others that stand out?

Hicks: Not off the top of my head...

Cargill: Okay.

Hicks:...but I can get back to you with more.

Cargill: Okay...Okay...Well...those are good examples I was wondering if there...if any more came to mind. I'm not putting you on the spot, like a quiz, but...

Hicks: Right. Those are the classic examples in the textbooks, so if that's the best they have...

Cargill: Right.

Hicks:...that's kind of concerning also because there is a lot of controvery.

[Someone else tells Cargill to ask Hicks about mutations.]

Cargill: What about how mutations are handled

Hicks: That they're usually bad?

Cargill: How mutations are handled in the textbooks do you...[inaudible]

Hicks: They don't usually discuss how lethal they usually are.

Cargill: Uh-huh.

Hicks: I mean they aren't...most mutations are not beneficial and that is one of the key ways they explain...

Cargill: Well I actually reviewed the Biology books five years ago. I was one of the, um, reviewers and that's what I found. I mean things that you're saying, I was like, you know, why are some of these still in here? Why is it not shown that, you know, this is a scientific weakness? I mean we need to get the science instead of this lop-sided version.

Notice how, when put on the spot, an advocate of teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution did not give a valid example of either.

Not a single valid example.

I mean, come on, seriously?

Peppered moths? Haeckel's embryos? Most mutations are harmful?

Is that really all that someone with a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology could come up with off the top of her head?

And does she really think that those old, dusty textbook staples are "the best [evolutionary biologists] have?"

I have said this before and I will say it again. The next time someone tells you that students should learn about the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, catch them off guard and ask them to tell you about the strengths.

Then sit back, relax, and watch the parade go by.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

New from the National Academies Press

The third edition of the NAP's "On Being a Scientist" book is now available for purchase or online for free.

Here is a snippet of the book's description:

"The scientific research enterprise is built on a foundation of trust. Scientists trust that the results reported by others are valid. Society trusts that the results of research reflect an honest attempt by scientists to describe the world accurately and without bias. But this trust will endure only if the scientific community devotes itself to exemplifying and transmitting the values associated with ethical scientific conduct.

On Being a Scientist was designed to supplement the informal lessons in ethics provided by research supervisors and mentors. The book describes the ethical foundations of scientific practices and some of the personal and professional issues that researchers encounter in their work. It applies to all forms of research--whether in academic, industrial, or governmental settings-and to all scientific disciplines."

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Sunday, March 29, 2009
Evolution is REAL Science #4

I dedicate this video to the state of Texas.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Saturday, March 28, 2009
"Anti-Evolution Bill Still A Fruitless Exercise"

That's the headline of a Tampa Bay Online article bearing good news from Florida.

TALLAHASSEE - A bill aimed at undercutting acceptance of evolution in Florida science classes, which kicked up a fuss but didn't pass in the Florida Legislature last year, apparently is going nowhere this year.

A Senate version of the bill has yet to receive a committee hearing and has no companion bill in the House.

That means, said one proponent of the idea, that the bill has little chance of passage in this frantic session, heavily devoted to cutting and balancing the state budget.

"With no companion in the House, it doesn't have much likelihood," said Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.

Of course, we'll have to wait until the end of the current legislative session before we pronounce the bill dead, but this certainly is an encouraging development for supporters of REAL science in Florida.

Although, I'm not sure that it is correct to say that anti-evolution activity in Florida is a "fruitless" exercise.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Concealing Evidence of Torture

Yesterday, I wrote about how one of the new science standards adopted by the Texas State Board of Education completely tortures the English language. In my post, I said that the wording of the new standard was "awkward, needlessly repetitive, and much too lengthy." I also pointed our readers to the Discovery Institute's predictable declaration that the adoption of this muddled language was part of a "significant victory" and an improvement over the original "strengths and weaknesses" version of the standard.

Today, the Discovery Institute's Associate Director John West has apparently agreed with me about the problems with the language of the standard.

In a post about the perceived inaccuracies contained within this Wall Street Journal article, West wrote:

Unfortunately, the article omits or mangles a lot of the details. For one thing, the article doesn't mention the new critical inquiry standard requiring students to "analyze, evaluate and critique scientific explanations...including examining all sides of scientific as to encourage critical thinking by the student."

What's with the ellipses, John?

You're not trying to hide something, are you?

Edit: fixed an errant link [7:45 pm, 03/28]

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Um, no. We don't.

Worship Darwin, that is.

Anti-evolution activists in Kansas and elsewhere have often accused pro-science folks of "worshipping Darwin as prophet" and of "indoctrinating children into materialism." Undoubtedly, there are some scientists who venture outside their field of expertise and claim that science proves there is no God. I regard these scientists' views on theology just as valid as our local fundamentalist ministers' insights into evolution.

Those extreme views generate a lot of headlines and are caricatured in the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a fitting subtitle for such an ignorant work. What gets ignored is the quiet mass of mainstream Christians, and scientists who don't feel they have to attack the faith of others to validate their own opinions. The producer of Expelled admitted that to include any interviews with evolution supporters who are also Christian would have "confused the film unnecessarily."

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation - FFRF - has been posting billboards around the country, one of which reinforces the fundamentalist view that accepting evolution is the same as espousing atheism. The text on the billboard posted this week in Wichita, Kansas, reads "Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief."

If the FFRF truly had Kansans' best interests at heart - that is, if they want to keep good science education standards alive out here - they could have used one of these signs they've used in other cities:

Same sign as in Topeka, KS
March, 2009

Phoenix, AZ
August 2008

Little Rock, AR
December 2008

But, no. Instead, the FFRF is proud that it specifically chose the "Praise Darwin" sign for a city in Kansas because of our decade-long wrangle with evolution and the state science education standards:

"We particularly wanted to place our Darwin billboard in Kansas, given the continuing struggles to keep creationism out of public schools," said Foundation co-president Dan Barker.

One of the first rules in any struggle is that you don't engage in actions which will unnecessarily mobilize the opposition. Connie Morris' big mistakes out here were to arrogantly assume she had the qualifications to decide science curriculum, and to accuse science teachers of promoting atheism in class. That mobilized me and a lot of my friends to work successfully against her re-election. Likewise, specifically mounting the "Praise Darwin" billboard instead of one of the other FFRF signs will likely result in a flood of anti-evolution letters to newspapers across the state. If the Kansas fundamentalists have any cunning - and they do - they'll refer back to that billboard in the 2010 state school board elections to persuade otherwise-on-the-fence voters to elect an anti-evolution candidate.

In other words, due to their choice of sign for Wichita, the FFRF has unwittingly just made my job as a science teacher much more difficult than it has to be.

Don't think for an instant that I'm trying to abrogate anyone's right to free speech. I would never suggest that the FFRF should not be free to express an opinion in the public square. However, if they are going to intentionally douse the Kansas anti-evolution embers with ether, then we better not hear any high-and-mighty hand-wringing about how "those Kansans are so stupid" if our current science standards go down in flames the next time around.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Audio of McLeroy's "Impassioned Plea"

Many thanks to Tony Whitson for putting together these recordings from yesterday's Texas State Board of Education meeting.

There was one interesting admission from Don McLeroy that I did not get to hear on Friday afternoon. (I was busy introducing my students to the basics of evolutionary biology).

In reference to his argument in favor of his (now dead) amendment, McLeroy admitted:

"I never claimed to have read the books..."

Well, that is technically true. But, he did state that reading books about evolution was "one of [his] hobbies." He also talked about checking out "three books a week" on the topic of evolution from his local public library. These statements certainly gave others the impression that he had read the relevant portions of the books he was quoting from.

Regardless, openly admitting that you have not actually read the original context of the materials you have quoted does nothing but damage one's own credibility. In other words, McLeroy's "defense" of his behavior resulted in an own goal.

I imagine that he is well aware of this and that it would just be mean for someone like me to rub it in.

Therefore, out of respect for Dr. McLeroy's public service, I would like to formally retract my prior assertion (found here) that McLeroy "claimed to have read" Stephen Jay Gould's magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

I apologize for the mistake on this point.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Friday, March 27, 2009
The Evidence Does Not Care

Earlier today, the Texas State Board of Education adopted a new set of science standards that includes the following student expectation:

In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.

The adoption of this standard was supposedly the result of a compromise between opposing factions of the Board.

In my opinion, the new standard is indeed a "compromise" - of the English language. Unfortunately, the wording of the standard is awkward, needlessly repetitive, and much too lengthy. In all of these aspects, it is utterly inferior to the concise language used by the scientists and educators originally appointed to write the standards:

The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing.

For me, the most problematic part of the new standard is the implication that there are multiple "sides" of the scientific evidence relevant to a particular scientific explanation. Scientific evidence does not have "sides." It merely exists for us to examine.

If anything, the "sides" are taken by scientists as they use empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing to determine the best scientific explanation for the available evidence.

The tortured language of this standard fails to make that important distinction, and I predict that this ambiguity will be abused in the future by individuals on the Board who think their uninformed personal opinions trump the scientific consensus.

Even worse, the notion that there are different "sides of scientific evidence" is completely foreign to the well-established language of scientific pedagogy. Based on several Internet searches I just performed, the phrase "all sides of scientific evidence" did not exist on the Internet prior to today's vote. Presumably, that means it does not show up in any of the thousands of science curriculum documents currently posted online. Therefore, not a single science educator is likely to know what the phrase is supposed to mean. This is another clear example of why science education experts should be the only ones writing science standards.

Despite this attempt to muddy the waters, this one clear truth remains:

Evolution has withstood intense scientific scrutiny to stand as the only testable explanation that explains the available evidence. It could have turned out otherwise, but it did not. Ultimately, though, the evidence does not care one way or the other.

Not surprisingly, the Discovery Institute has already declared the adoption of this muddled language a "significant victory," even asserting that this version of the standard is an improvement over the previous "strengths and weaknesses" version.

Unfortunately for teachers and students in Texas, the folks at the Discovery Institute have adopted the same attitude as the scientific evidence. As long as they get to claim victory in the end, they just don't seem to care.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Some Things Never Change

Today, Don McLeroy passionately defended his attempt to inject his own misunderstandings of evolution into Biology classrooms in Texas.

One of McLeroy's fellow Board members made the motion to strike standard rule 7B, the nonsensical amendment that McLeroy proposed in January.

With this prospect looming, McLeroy made the following appeal:

(Video via Texas Freedom Network)

In the middle of his plea, McLeroy deflected the accusation of quote mining, saying:

"People are trying to say I'm speaking out of context about stasis."

He then immediately went on to confirm that accusation by quoting Stephen Jay Gould out of context (again). Apparently, McLeroy is not only arguing about stasis, he is trying to model it.

This situation is not that complicated. Stasis is not a problem for modern evolutionary theory. As I pointed out yesterday, sudden appearance and stasis are two of the patterns that we should expect to observe if we apply our modern understanding of how new species form (i.e., allopatric and especially peripatric speciation) and the observed phenomenon of "stabilizing selection" to the fossil record.

In spite of McLeroy's attempted deflection, the "out of context" charge is clearly supported by the fact that he has openly admitted that he copied the Gould quotes from a Creationist website. If he would actually take the time to read the book from which those quotes were mined, he would realize that the only things Gould ever wrote about "stasis" were actually part of his arguments in favor of evolution.

In truth, none of the scientists who opposed McLeroy's amendment denied that stasis is one of the patterns observed in the fossil record. They simply disputed McLeroy's false claim that this pattern "doesn't support evolution." If McLeroy had taken the time to actually read Gould's own words instead of the quote mines he plagiarized, he might understand this simple point.

Despite his impassioned plea, McLeroy's amendment was eventually struck from the standards. Unfortunately, it was later replaced with the following "compromise" amendment:

"Analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data about sudden appearance, stasis and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil record."

While definitely an improvement over the original, the inclusion of the words "sudden appearance" and "stasis" will undoubtedly give McLeroy the green light to make the same arguments again when new Biology textbooks are considered in 2011. Unless, of course, he actually learns something about evolution between now and then.

Unfortunately, with Don McLeroy, stasis is data.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Common ancestry returns to Texas

From the TFN liveblog:

1:06 - Allen's amendment passes 8-7, striking McLeroy's challenge to common descent in the standards. Very important victory.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Thursday, March 26, 2009
Dr. David Hillis - A Stand Up Guy

posted by Jeremy Mohn

"Stasis is data."

The above three words constitute one of the more egregious quote mines that Texas State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy has been using in his personal crusade against the reality of common ancestry.

Of course, McLeroy recently admitted that he blindly copied the quote from a Creationist website without even bothering to read the original context, so it should come as no surprise that he completely butchers Gould's intent every time he uses the phrase.

When Gould wrote that "stasis is data," he was referring to the "equilibrium" part of the theory of punctuated equilibrium. He was lamenting the fact that his colleagues had failed to grasp that the stasis seen in the fossil record was actually a relevant part of the data, not something that was to be disregarded as unhelpful information about evolution. Most importantly, Gould was not saying that the observation of stasis means that common ancestry, the central conclusion of evolutionary theory, no longer holds.

In fact, Gould's point was exactly the opposite. Stasis is what we should expect to observe if we apply our modern understanding of how new species form (i.e., allopatric and especially peripatric speciation) to the patterns of change predicted in the fossil record.

An example of McLeroy's confusion can be heard in a recent radio interview. I'll transcribe and comment on the relevant portion below.

McLeroy: Here's the issue, what does the data show? And the data...what is the evidence for evolution?

Interviewer: know, this is the...

McLeroy: Okay, for common ancestry...let me just finish just this part.

Interviewer: Okay.

McLeroy: Common ancestry is the first key part, that all life descends from common ancestry. You should see that in the fossil record. The fossil record does not support it. Stephen Jay Gould, who is an ardent evolutionist...had to come up with the punctuated equilibrium...but he basically had this to say about the fossil record, he says, "stasis is data." Stasis is where the say the same. He said, "stasis is data...Say it ten times before breakfast every morning for a week." That's the data.

Interviewer: Okay, all right...nope...I'm very, very familiar with Stephen Jay Gould. Right. Now, Stephen Jay Gould was also, Stephen Jay Gould was actually a biologist. You're trained as a...

McLeroy: Oh, no, he was a paleontologist.

Interviewer: Paleontologist, right. You're not a paleontologist, are you?

McLeroy: No, but I can read what he wrote. And I can read what other evolutionists have written.

McLeroy could read what Gould wrote, but he is actually relying on quotations that have been completely divorced from their original context by people who share his unreasonable doubts about evolution. It's truly sad that he doesn't seem to realize how awful this lack of critical thinking is making him look.

The interview continues:

Interviewer: Right, but then why not let them tell the story? Why would we want a dentist who is a lively conversationalist about paleontology determining what people learn in science classes throughout the state of Texas?

McLeroy: Because we want to be honest with the kids. If you want to be honest with the kids, if you want kids to be able to really keep a passion for science, to be able to trust what science is, you don't sit there and pull the wool over their eyes with a lot of ideas that are not supported by the data.


I've sat here now for about ten minutes trying to figure out what to say in response to McLeroy's claim that he wants to "be honest with the kids."

Nothing appropriate comes to mind, so I'll just say this:

If I taught in McLeroy's district, I would invite him to come visit my Honors Biology classroom for the next five weeks. We're just starting our evolution unit, and I think he might learn something. For instance, maybe he would finally stop equating evolution with morphological change.

Plus, I think my students might be able to teach him a little about honesty.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Dunbar: Eliminating "weaknesses" = inhibiting religion

Professor Tony Whitson has posted the audio for an interesting exchange during yesterday's evolution hearings in Texas. Eugenie Scott (ES), of the National Center for Science Education, had finished her clear and concise presentation against including the "strengths and weaknesses" language in the Texas science standards, and for including the "analyze and evaluate" language as recommended by the standards writers and the scientific community. Cynthia Dunbar (CD), an ardently unapologetic creationist, revealed that at least in her mind, eliminating the "weaknesses" language is the same as inhibiting religion.

The relevant audio is transcribed after the jump.

CD: So in a semantics issue as far as weaknesses, you don't think there is weaknesses per se, but do you believe this is still simply unknown or not fully understood knowledge on the issue?

ES: There's un-understood knowledge about gravitation, and in every scientific explanation.

CD: Right. So that wouldn't be something that you request?

ES: I - that's not a weakness, that wouldn't be included -

CD: (interrupting) Well, I'm not - I didn't say weakness, I said I understand the semantic issue as far as how you define weakness, um, but there would be areas that are certainly unknown. Um, do you believe that to allow discussion on weaknesses would in your mind open that up to a religious discussion?

ES: Absolutely -

CD: (interrupting) Okay, and would you think then that in order for a secular scientific presentation that we would necessarily need to inhibit such discussion?

ES: Well, you need to inhibit discussion of religious explanations in the science, in the public school classes in general because advocacy of religion is unconstitutional in public schools.

CD: And are you aware that inhibition is also unconstitutional?

ES: That which? I'm sorry, I didn't hear the word you said.

CD: Inhibition.

ES: Inhibition. Alright, inhibiting religion as well as promoting religion are both unconstitutional -

CD: (interrupting) Right, thank you, thank you.

ES: But you're not saying that the weaknesses of evolution are creationist views

DM (Don McLeroy, chair): (interrupting) Alright -

ES: are you?

DM: We ask the questions, thanks.

(Great hilarity ensues from the audience.)

CD: I didn't say creationist views. I just asked very specific questions and it's all on the record.


That's right, Ms. Dunbar, it's all on the record. As are the statements from the anti-evolution folks, who mostly gave away their religious motivations for favoring "strengths and weaknesses" over "analyzing and evaluating."

Dunbar is also on the record in her book One Nation Under God where she maintains that public schools are "tools of perversion," "tyrannical" and "unconstitutional" because they're not supported by Scripture. We must assume this is why she's chosen to educate her own children through homeschooling and private schools.

(Where exactly is democracy supported by Scripture, Ms. Dunbar - shall we go back to being ruled by a divinely-appointed king? For that matter, modern transportation and medicine aren't mentioned in Scripture either . . . )

Yes, Dunbar's motivations are clearly on the record, as she'll discover to her chagrin during any ensuing court proceedings. Clearly she didn't learn from Bill Buckingham's record in Dover.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Live from Texas: Strengths/Weaknesses FAIL

Via Texas Freedom Network's liveblogging:

11:12 - Mr. Craig's motion fails 6-8. We're back to Mr. Mercer's original amendment adding back "strengths and weaknesses."

11:13 - Mr. Mercer's motion fails 7-7!!!

11;15 - This is huge victory for sound science education in Texas. Moreover, the creationists' opposition to Mr. Craig's motion* exposed their hypocrisy about wanting to ensure that students can ask questions about science.

*Mr. Craig had proposed keeping out the "strengths and weaknesses" language, and adding "including discussing what is not fully understood so as to encourage critical thinking by the student."

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Wednesday, March 25, 2009
And to think that I saw it on Congress Avenue!

When I was a kid, one of my favorite stories was Dr. Seuss's And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. It's about a young boy named Marco who is walking home and observing the mundane sights and sounds along the title thoroughfare.

On the way home, all Marco sees is a horse-drawn wagon. This prompts him to complain:

That's nothing to tell of,
That won't do, of course...
Just a broken-down wagon
That's drawn by a horse.

So, in place of the wagon, Marco dreams up an elaborate tale to tell to his father about the amazing menagerie that he saw parading down the street, including a big brass band on a trailer being pulled by an elephant and two giraffes, a police escort, the Mayor, an airplane dumping confetti, and more!

I couldn't help but be reminded of this story when I read Casey Luskin's recent Evolution News and Views post in which four people constitute a "Parade of Ph.D. Biologists."

That's some parade!

Even more giggle-inducing is the comparison between Luskin's paltry list and the National Center for Science Education's extensive list of fifty-four scientific and educational societies calling for the approval of the standards as originally submitted, without the misleading "strengths and weaknesses" language.

In the end, it turns out that there is a significant difference between the imaginative young Marco and Mr. Luskin.

When faced with the choice, Marco decided to abandon his tall tale and just tell his father the truth.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

"SBOE science vote about creationism"

Scientists have challenged anti-evolutionists for decades to get off their butts and do some actual, you know, research. As in, get out in the field or in front of the lab bench and carry out some experiments designed to test their so-far-nonexistent hypotheses.

You see, when a person trained in the science starts digging for the facts, surprises are unearthed. For example, who'd have thought that the chairman of a state board of education would stoop to plagiarizing and quotemining in order to persuade his fellow board members to vote against strong science standards?

Unfortunately for Don McLeroy, Jeremy did that digging. The steaming heap of refuse he found was further publicized by the editorial board of the San Antonio Express-News: (bolding by me)

Members of the State Board of Education who want to maintain the "strengths and weaknesses" provision on evolution in the science curriculum - against the nearly unanimous testimony of scientists and educators - insist their goal is not to replace science with religion. It's all about critical thinking and academic integrity, they say.

If so, then members of the board will want to look carefully at a list of statements Chairman Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, entered into the public record in January, shortly after an 8-7 majority preliminarily voted to remove the strengths and weaknesses provision.

McLeroy read more than two-dozen seemingly authoritative quotes from books and magazines that appear to cast doubt on the scientific basis of evolutionary theory. Jeremy Mohn, a Kansas biology teacher, analyzed the quotes on his Web site, Mohn, who is Christian, believes in the compatibility of religious belief and evolutionary theory.

What Mohn demonstrates is that McLeroy relied on selective quotations and creative use of ellipses to emphasize his points. More interesting, however, is that many of the quotes appear in the same order, with the same punctuation and even an identical citation error as on the creationist Web site

Genesis Park states its mission is "to present in a graphical, easily accessible manner the evidence that dinosaurs and man were created together and have co-existed throughout history" and "approaches the subject of origins with a literal adherence to the scriptures."

After McLeroy's oratory, a board majority largely reversed the strengths and weaknesses change by voting to require that students assess the arguments for and against universal common descent, a key principle of evolution.

McLeroy made no mention of Genesis Park in his address to the State Board. Recently, however, he acknowledged to Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg that he had copied some of his information from the creationist Web site.

Had McLeroy cited Genesis Park as his source, as any Texas student would have been required to do, the swing members on the board might have reconsidered their votes.

This week, the State Board of Education will cast a final vote to determine the science curriculum for Texas public schools. When members hear the issue is about freedom of speech and not about watering down scientific knowledge, they should remember Genesis Park - and vote to set the curriculum according to the rigorous standards of science rather than the doctrinal sources McLeroy is reluctant to acknowledge.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Sometimes, you just need to show up . . .

You could apply this to, oh, voting, or college classes, or life itself, I guess.

Or to getting part of the International Space Station named after you. What, you haven't yet heard of the Colbert Room aboard the ISS?

You see, NASA - always sensitive to public opinion - decided to host an online contest to decide the name of this orbiting cubicle-within-a-box. But NASA boldly went where most public-school teachers know better than to go, and included a free-response option to the four choices narrowed down already by NASA.

Sure enough, Colbert, who wasn't able to get his name on the South Carolina Republican presidential primary ticket, encouraged his viewers to submit his name. Et voila, the deed was done. Over 200,000 "Colbert" entries were recorded, with the pre-NASA-approved "Serenity" running a far distant second with 40,000 votes.

Of course, NASA still reserves the right of final approval; after all, it's the agency and not Colbert's viewers who've had to fight so hard for funding. I shudder to think of a room named after Rush Limbaugh, although it's doubtful NASA would ever procure enough funding for a fittingly behemoth monument to the ego of the Republican party's de-facto leader.

But I digress. Other already-named rooms on the ISS include Unity, Harmony, and Destiny.

I'm sorry, Stephen, I enjoy your program once in awhile, but Colbert just doesn't . . . fit.

NASA really should stick with the names evocative of little girls born in the 1960's and 1970's.

PS - if you'd like to have your say in history, you can still cast your vote to name a new Mars rover:

Will we be watching Adventure touch down on Mars in 2012? Or will it be Amelia instead? Or something else equally wonderful? Here's your chance to decide what NASA's next Mars rover will be named - and send your own name along for the ride. P.S.: Stephen Colbert doesn't get a write-in vote on this one.

edited for atrocious grammar

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Tuesday, March 24, 2009
"Yet another fine testament to the level of scholarship that goes on at the State Board of Education"

Once again, some members of the Texas state board of education are leading by example. And they're performing masterfully, if their goal is to produce students who cheat on their homework.

As (both of) our faithful readers know, Jeremy's "Collapse of a Texas Quote Mine" demolished any pretenses TSBE Chair Don McLeroy had to honest scholarship. Writer Lisa Falkenberg exposed McLeroy's duplicity today in the Houston Chronicle:

The conservative bloc also will try and keep two amendments hastily presented and approved in January that cast doubt on the fossil record and a basic tenant[sic] of Darwin's theory: common descent.

Board Chairman and ardent Darwin-denier Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, pushed through one of the amendments after reading aloud a long list of quotes attempting to cast doubt on evolution from reputable science publications and authoritative books by revered scientists. McLeroy never directly claimed that he culled the quotes himself. But as he held up the books he was quoting from, and talked about checking out volumes on evolution at his local library, I certainly got the impression he'd done his own research.

Copied research?

But blogger and Kansas biology teacher, Jeremy Mohn, revealed McLeroy's bad clip job in his extensive blog posting, "Collapse of a Texas Quote Mine." Mohn also provided the context and authors' explanations lacking in McLeroy's quote list.

Mohn discovered McLeroy had lifted much of the research from another creationist blog. McLeroy's quotes were in virtually the same order, and he repeated a page number error.

McLeroy acknowledged to me that he had copied some of the research from the creationist site because he liked "the format," although he said he had indeed read one of the books. He added: "A lot of the quotes I did get on my own."

Yet another fine testament to the level of scholarship that goes on at the State Board of Education.

So the chair of the Texas state board of education has been caught cheating on his homework. Will he admit this fact to his fellow board members at this week's meeting and retract his earlier, plagiarized statements? Or will he still expect to be rewarded for his cheating ways?

We all know how an ethical person would behave in this situation. In a couple of days, we'll find out whether McLeroy has any shred of ethical behavior left in his heart.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Saturday, March 21, 2009
ICR - Asking for a Bailout

Supporters of the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research (ICR), a private institution that profits from the promotion of Young Earth Creationism (YEC), are seeking a bailout from the Texas Legislature. Along with Kentucky-based Answers in Genesis (AiG), ICR is among the biggest YEC organizations in the U.S.

Republican Representative Leo Berman recently proposed a bill (HB 2800) that would exempt institutions like ICR from the authority of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). Rep. Berman was prompted to submit the bill when he learned that ICR was denied a certificate of authority from the THECB in 2007. The certificate would allow the ICR Graduate School to issue Masters of Science degrees in science education.

It is Berman's belief that ICR's version of Young Earth Creationism is just as scientific as evolution and should be granted equal weight in the educational community.

"I don't believe I came from a salamander that crawled out of a swamp millions of years ago," Berman told "I do believe in creationism. I do believe there are gaps in evolution.

"But when you ask someone who believes in evolution, if you ask one of the elitists who believes in evolution about the gaps, they'll tell you that the debate is over, that there is no debate, evolution is the thing, it's the only way to go."

Actually, it's the folks at ICR who are the elitists, demanding that their beliefs are the only way to go. What other institution of higher learning in Texas requires that their students and faculty sign a "Statement of Faith" expressing opposition to evolution and literal acceptance of the Bible?

"All things in the universe were created and made by God in the six literal days of the creation week described in Genesis 1:1-2:3, and confirmed in Exodus 20:8-11. The creation record is factual, historical and perspicuous; thus all theories of origins or development which involve evolution in any form are false."

Berman's bill would pave the way for ICR to grant graduate degrees that would be considered equal to those of other Texas universities. It would also likely allow other substandard institutions to descend upon in the Lone Star State with the intention of exploiting Texas graduate students for financial gain.

So, instead of doing the hard work required to demonstrate that their graduate program has scientific and educational value, the supporters of ICR are asking for a government bailout that would exempt them from accountability.

Apparently, they want to be associated with two institutions that go by the letters "AIG."

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Challenge and Opportunity

Today in New Orleans, President Obama's new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association. I heard from a correspondent on the scene - okay, my husband - who, in between giving presentations and scavenging through the exhibitors' hall, managed to point me to the text of Secretary Duncan's speech.

(And why am I not at the conference? Don't ask, just suffice it to say that the probate system is a little taste of what awaits after death if I don't behave myself.)

Secretary Duncan repeated many of President Obama's earlier speaking points: longer school days, longer school year, lifting caps on charter schools, expanding performance pay, increasing parental responsibility, and providing greater access to college.

But Secretary Duncan did re-emphasize how important REAL science is these days:

Moreover, he is a president who will not allow scientific research to be held hostage to a political agenda. Whether it's global warming, evolution or stem cell research, science will be honored, respected, and supported by this administration.

The president sent a strong signal when he picked a Nobel-Prize winning physicist to be our energy secretary - and I plan to work closely with him and with all of the other key agencies from NASA to the EPA to the National Science Foundation - to launch a new era of science education in America.

(This new energy secretary, Steven Chu, is already shaking up the status quo at the DOE.)

More from Secretary Duncan:

Science is all about questioning assumptions, testing theories, and analyzing facts. These are basic skills that prepare kids not just for the lab - but also for life. We're doing kids a disservice if we don't teach them how to ask tough and challenging questions.

ID dilettantes sometimes often try to mask their anti-science actions with similar-sounding rhetoric. Kansans won't quickly forget one particular remark from former Kansas State Board of Education member Connie "evolution is biologically, genetically, mathematically, chemically, metaphysically and etc. 'wildly' and 'utterly impossible'" Morris:

"In fact we want MORE science by CRITICALLY ANALIZING [sic] the evidence."

Fortunately, there are many excellent resources for teaching critical thinking skills and analysis, so there's absolutely no excuse for teaching students bogus arguments masquerading as REAL science.

But you might be thinking, shouldn't we encourage questioning assumptions, as Secretary Duncan espouses? What's wrong with insisting that K12 students test theories, analyze facts, and ask tough and challenging questions?

Absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course. Just as long as we make sure those tests and analyses and questions aren't based on the same ol' same ol' long-refuted crock of effluvient so beloved by anti-evolutionists. You know, "no transitional fossils" "mutations can't generation new information" "Cambrian explosion" etc.

We hear a lot of whining, "why should evolution be exempt from critical analysis?"

It isn't. Evolution is solidly established as a fact and as a theory. This doesn't mean that evolutionary research is dead; on the contrary! But we should recognize that the bleeding edge of research is well beyond the ken of the vast majority of the population who aren't trained in evolutionary biology.

Does this mean we think high school students are too stupid to understand? Nope; they're just not ready, not yet. Most high school students aren't ready to intelligently discuss tensor analysis or Hamiltonian groups or non-laminar fluid behavior either. Teaching these young minds that the earth is flat won't help them understand those points; forcing them to accept falsehoods in lieu of REAL science is just a way for anti-science folks to further confuse the issues.

And as Secretary Duncan pointed out, confusion is the last thing these students need:

Now we need you - your ideas, your energy, and your leadership - to build on the great tradition of inquiry, research, and theory that produced Edison and Einstein to create a new generation of scientists and make the world smarter and healthier.

America's economic security tomorrow is directly tied to the quality of education we provide today. This is our task. This is our challenge. Now let's get to work.

The prospect of a longer school year and longer school days is an challenging and expensive proposition, although one which might bring my current pay more in line with the pay of others who have my degrees. But to have the time to explore each topic in the standards in more depth along with extending their critical thinking skills . . . now there's an opportunity our kids deserve.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Friday, March 20, 2009
Asking for Trouble - Again

In an earlier post, I noted that Texas State Board of Education member Terri Leo is apparently well aware that singling out evolution for special treatment in the public school classrooms has been a losing proposition in the Federal courts.

Recently, Leo displayed her knowledge of this important legal precedent on the "Wallbuilders Live" radio program:

"...what the Federal law actually says is that you cannot pull evolution out and treat it separately or differently than you have treated other theories."

On this point, Leo is enitrely correct. Adopting an educational policy that singles out evolution for special treatment in the public school science classroom practically guarantees a costly lawsuit and the eventual rejection of that policy by the federal courts.

Too bad Leo does not realize that this is exactly what she and her fellow antievolutionists on the Board have been doing.

Seemingly oblivious, Leo continued:

"So, in Texas, we have not done that. We applied the strengths and weaknesses language to all theories."

They're applying the language to all theories?


I guess that's why Terri Leo proposed and passed five amendments to the evolution standards, each of which would require students to "analyze and evaluate" certain aspects of evolutionary theory, even when the change of wording makes no sense.

The desire to apply the "strengths and weaknesses" language to all theories must have been why be why Chairman Don McLeroy proposed and passed his ill-conceived and dubiously supported amendment on the fossil record and common ancestry. McLeroy has also announced his plans to propose an amendment that would require students to learn about "the insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of cells."

Board member Barbara Cargill also proposed 13 amendments to the Earth and Space Science standards (5 of which passed), each dealing with well-established scientific principles that are consistently rejected by Young Earth Creationists.

And let us not forget what happened in 2003 when McLeroy, Leo, and others tried to persuade textbook publishers to include bogus "weaknesses" of evolution - and only evolution - in Biology textbooks.

And yet, Terri Leo says that they're not pulling out evolution and treating it differently from other theories.

You know, I heard what she said, but I'm just not buying it.

In fact, I think it was particularly telling how Leo described the function of the "strengths and weaknesses" language that she and her fellow anti-evolutionists hope to re-insert into the standards when the Board meets next week.

"So therefore it is lawsuit-clad,'s a solid way of doing it."

Doing what, Ms. Leo?

Oh, you're talking about singling out evolution for special treatment, aren't you?

Yeah, I thought so.

Hat-tip: TFN Insider

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Tuesday, March 17, 2009
American Idolator?

Jeremy did a masterful job of researching and bringing to light the quote-mining antics of Don McLeroy. The National Center for Science Education has posted action-packed videos of McLeroy in full quote-mining mode. Watch the chunks fly! Dodge the debris! And wear your boots because the, um, detritus gets rather thick.

Check out the videos here. Perhaps some enterprising tech wizard will emulate John Freshwater's instructions and add little "HERE" balloons and a bell to the video whenever McLeroy bastardizes the words of yet another scientist.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Saturday, March 14, 2009
Iowa Bill Dies in Committee

Via Panda's Thumb, we learn that the "Evolution Academic Freedom Act" in Iowa has failed to make it out of the relevant subcommittee in the Iowa legislature.

Casey Luskin, a lawyer with the Discovery Institute, recently debated the bill on a radio talk show and had this to say about it:

"This bill only protects the teaching of science. It expressly prohibits the teaching of evolution. Why would anyone reasonably oppose this bill?"

Hmmm ... Is that some kind of trick question, Casey?

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Thursday, March 12, 2009
Science Cafe March - Reprise

Whoa . . .




That was the attendance at tonight's Science Cafe in middle-of-nowhere Hays, Kansas, for the topic of high-energy physics.

Hays, YOU ROCK!!!

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Wednesday, March 11, 2009
"Back to the basics -- sciences, that is"

Great minds aren't limited to great cities. Sometimes you find the sharpest intellects among the barren open spaces.

One such staunch science supporter writes a regular column for the Hays Daily News. This week, he focused on the process of science: how the search for knowledge might seem irrelevant to any of our current woes, yet may result in completely new and unexpected solutions.

Take a look at John Hauxwell's opinion, part of which follows:

Obviously this [the Large Hadron Collider] all costs billions of dollars to create and operate. Since we face so many problems with poverty, hunger, war, ignorance and disease, it's not surprising that some people will question the prudence of such expenditures.

It's called "basic science" -- the investigation of fundamental properties of our universe and all it contains.

Why does matter, well ... matter?

Thanks, John, for your support and inspiration!

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Saturday, March 7, 2009
Science Cafe - March

What are hadrons?

Why should we collide them?

The Large Hadron Collider - the LHC - is the biggest and most expensive machine ever built. But why should we spend $8 billion looking for one of the tiniest particles in the universe?

Join us next Wednesday, March 11, at Cafe Semolino (110 W. 11th, Hays) as Dr. Phil Baringer of the University of Kansas leads us in a high-energy discussion of this strangely charming topic.

Science Cafe in Hays is sponsored by Kansas Citizens for Science, the FHSU Science and Mathematics Education Institute, and

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Wednesday, March 4, 2009
One More Nugget

When I originally began reverse quote-mining Texas SBOE Chairman Don McLeroy's long list of quotes, I ignored the first entry on McLeroy's handout because it did not have quotation marks around it.

Well, it turns out that those words do appear in the article McLeroy cited ... sort of.

Here is how McLeroy represented tuatara DNA research findings on his handout:

New Zealand's "living dinousaur" - the Tuatara - is surprisingly the fastest evolving animal. It is unchanged in 200 million years Science Daily, March 23, 2008 [Stasis]

Like many of the quotes that Chairman McLeroy used in support of his nonsensical amendment, the message conveyed by this particular entry bears little resemblance to the original message of the article cited.

Here is how that same information was presented in the actual ScienceDaily article cited by McLeroy (matching text is shown in red):

Headline: New Zealand's 'Living Dinosaur' - The Tuatara - Is Surprisingly The Fastest Evolving Animal

...In a study of New Zealand's "living dinosaur" the tuatara, evolutionary biologist, and ancient DNA expert, Professor David Lambert and his team from the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution recovered DNA sequences from the bones of ancient tuatara, which are up to 8000 years old. They found that, although tuatara have remained largely physically unchanged over very long periods of evolution, they are evolving - at a DNA level - faster than any other animal yet examined.

..."Of course we would have expected that the tuatara, which does everything slowly - they grow slowly, reproduce slowly and have a very slow metabolism - would have evolved slowly. In fact, at the DNA level, they evolve extremely quickly, which supports a hypothesis proposed by the evolutionary biologist Allan Wilson, who suggested that the rate of molecular evolution was uncoupled from the rate of morphological evolution."

...The tuatara, Sphendon punctatus, is found only in New Zealand and is the only surviving member of a distinct reptilian order Sphehodontia that lived alongside early dinosaurs and separated from other reptiles 200 million years ago in the Upper Triassic period.

The article is about how tuatara DNA research has supported the contention that the rate of molecular evolution is uncoupled from the rate of morphological evolution. The researchers extracted DNA from 8,000-year-old tuatara bones and compared it to the DNA of modern tuataras. They found that this species has the highest rate of molecular evolution ever measured. The finding was somewhat of a surprise because the morphological evidence suggests that tuataras have changed very little physically since they diverged from other reptile groups about 200 million years ago.

Anyway, it is quite telling that Chairman McLeroy thinks the species with the fastest known rate of molecular evolution is "unchanged in 200 million years." That's like saying that the United States us "unchanged in 50 years" because no new states have been admitted to the Union since Hawaii! The outlines may not have changed significantly, but the contents sure have.

It appears that Chairman McLeroy either failed to understand the article, or he knowingly misrepresented it. Either way, this just provides one more nugget of evidence that McLeroy has no business dictating what the next generation of Texas students will learn in their science classrooms.

Sincere thanks goes out to Panda's Thumb commenter Torbjörn Larsson, for tracking down the ScienceDaily article and performing the dissection.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Like we needed more evidence

Those who push anti-evolution/anti-science education standards and legislation try to pawn their propaganda off as a "scientific debate." They do this in order to get around the Constitutional requirement that religion not be taught as science in public schools. They're counting on the general public's blind acceptance of their misinformation as facts.

The truth is that the "controversy" over evolution is a debate between religious sects and their interpretations of Scripture. More evidence of that fact is shown in an article in yesterday's Christianity Today with the appropriate subtitle of Christian college professors split on Texas science standards:

[Abilene Christian University biology professor David] Brannan joined hundreds of scientists in signing a 21st Century Science Coalition petition that supports new curriculum standards for the state's 4.7 million public-school students. The petition states that Evolution is an easily observable phenomenon that has been documented "beyond any reasonable doubt?"

Among other petition signers were science professors from Baylor, Hardin-Simmons, McMurry, and Texas Christian - all Texas universities with Christian ties.

But other Christian biology professors have aligned themselves with the Discovery Institute in signing a petition titled "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism."

Nope, it's definitely a debate rooted in religious tenets rather than a genuine scientific conflict.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

A quick thought

Shills for anti-evolution/anti-science measures often point to the fact that many in the general public believe in some variant of creationism. At the same time, those shills ignore the fact that 99.9% of scientists who actually know something about the topic accept evolution as the best scientific explanation for the diversity of life we've observed on our planet.

Thus, by the anti-evo tally, uninformed public opinion should be a greater factor in determining curriculum than the research-based consensus of the world-wide scientific community.

Or, to put it more succinctly - they believe that ignorance overrules evidence.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Genesis Revisited

"To convey the logical absurdity of trying to squeeze the round peg of science into the square hole of religion, I penned the following scientific revision of the Genesis creation story. It is not intended as a sacrilege of the poetic beauty of Genesis; rather, it is a mere extension of what the creationists have already done to Genesis in their insistence that it be read not as mythic saga but as scientific prose. If Genesis were written in the language of modern science, it would read something like this."

Video by norwonk

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Quick Quiz:

Where has the oldest fossilized brain been found?

A) Antarctic
B) China
C) Kansas
D) Fred Phelps

Answer after the jump.

A) Antarctic
B) China
C) Kansas
D) Fred Phelps

A Walmart store now stands on the [Lawrence,] Kansas site, but the researchers plan to X-ray fossils from similar locations in Oklahoma and the UK. The team say its goal is to find a brain from a creature with no living relatives, such as the huge armoured fishes of the Devonian period or Tiktaalik, the fish that first crawled onto land.

And yes, it's mind-boggling that a state infamous for its anti-evolution stance is a state chock-full of fossil evidence for evolution.

Cue creationist zombies chanting "BRAAAAAINS can't be fossilized" in 3, 2, 1, . . .

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Sunday, March 1, 2009

State Senator Stephen Wise of Florida recently filed a bill that encourages the "critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution" in Florida public school classrooms.

Florida Citizens for Science responded thusly:

Wise's antievolution bill is an insult to citizens who are tired of stomping over the same ground over and over again. The Florida Board of Education and last year's state legislature have already debated the teaching of evolution ad nauseam. To insist on bringing this up again is irresponsible because it will distract our lawmakers from the important tasks at hand, and could burden one of our school districts with a million dollar legal bill.

It is quite obvious to the well-informed observer that this bill is not intended to promote true "critical analysis" of evolution.

Indeed, a critical analysis of this "critical analysis" bill demonstrates that it is merely an attempt to undermine the teaching of evolution by encouraging sympathetic teachers in Florida to introduce religiously-motivated antievolution arguments in their classrooms under the guise of critical thinking.

The first obvious clue is that the bill only subjects evolution to critical analysis. It does not encourage the critical analysis of other scientific theories such as germ theory, atomic theory, gravitational theory, or plate tectonic theory. The singling out of evolution reveals an underlying concern about the perceived conflict between evolution and certain religious beliefs, not a genuine concern for scientific accuracy.

Another obvious clue is that the bill does not specify what the critical analysis should actually entail. There are several arguments worth having when it comes to evolution. An investigation of these open questions concerning evolution would be a legitimate educational strategy. The fact that the bill does not specify what the critical analysis should entail suggests that it is solely intended to cast doubt upon evolution by the uncritical promotion of religiously-motivated antievolution arguments.

Keep in mind that Sen. Wise apparently thinks that this is a valid criticism of evolution (my emphasis):

"I always like the story, the person says, well, 'You know, we came from monkeys, we came from apes.' Well, why do we still have apes if we came from them? And those are the kind of questions kids need to ask themselves."

While we're at it, here's a question that I think kids need to ask themselves: If the Earth is a big ball, why don't people in the southern hemisphere fall off the bottom of it?

I bet you Newtonists never thought about that one.

The final obvious clue concerning the bill's true intent is that Sen. Wise initially said that he was going to submit a bill that would require teachers to present "intelligent design" as "the other side" when evolution is taught. He originally offered this as the only way to encourage "critical thinking" in the classroom.

And now Sen. Wise wants us to believe that his motivations for filing this "critical analysis" bill are purely secular and completely scientific.

Uh huh.

Maybe he should change his middle name to "Un."

posted by Jeremy Mohn

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