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Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Fireflies and Evolution

This summer, my kids and I are participating in Firefly Watch, a citizen science project from the Boston Museum of Science that combines an annual summer evening ritual with scientific research. We are having a lot of fun keeping track of the fireflies in our backyard and learning to appreciate their unique behaviors.

Science writer Carl Zimmer has an article in the New York Times explaining how evolutionary biology is helping researchers to understand firefly courtship signals.

It's a fascinating topic and another reminder of the usefulness of evolutionary theory for making sense out of biological observations.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Texas SBOE Attack Will Make Evolution Stronger

When the Texas State Board of Education passed new science standards last Spring, many observers wondered how textbook publishers would respond to the new standards. Would they bow to the pressure of anti-evolutionists on the board and include long-rejected "criticisms" of evolution?

An encouraging answer to that question comes from a recent article in Science magazine entitled "Authors Scramble to Make Textbooks Conform to Texas Science Standards" (subscription required). Here is an excerpt from the article:

The new Texas standards leave plenty of room for authors to explain the robustness of evolutionary theory, [Kenneth Miller] says, and that's precisely what he and his publisher, Prentice Hall, plan to do. "The advocates of these standards underestimate the strength of the scientific evidence for structures and phenomena that they mistakenly believe evolution cannot account for," Miller says. "The new wording is an opportunity to make biology texts even stronger."

For example, Miller intends to "introduce more material on the evolution of organelles" within the cell to show that the cell's complexity is in fact explained by evolution. Likewise, he sees the standard requiring explanations of "sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record" - although written with the intent to undermine evolution - as "an invitation to introduce students to punctuated equilibrium."

Steve Nowicki, a biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, plans to take the same approach when he asks Texas to adopt his biology book, published by Holt McDougal. "I understand that there may be a political agenda behind the standards, but I am taking them at face value," he says. "If a state thinks students need more information to understand evolution, I am happy to provide that."

So it appears that some textbook authors will be treating the Texas standards as an invitation to strengthen the coverage of evolution in their textbooks. This is precisely the feeling I got from Dr. Miller when Cheryl and I got to speak with him last April.

Will all of the major textbook publishers stand firm in support of REAL science?

We'll just have to wait and see.

HT: Lisa Falkenberg

posted by Jeremy Mohn

PBS tonight: "The Music Instinct"

Electric bass #1(WalMart): $100
Electric bass #2(Fender Jaguar): $600
100-W Bass amp: $300
String & electric bass lessons, past 4 years: $2400
Voice lessons: $60 per hour + 600 miles roundtrip
Acoustic bass guitar: $400
Acoustic bass guitar case: $150

That's for just one of the four musically-inclined kids.

Is it wrong to hope that tonight's PBS premier will show that music correlates positively with cognitive development, social skills, and satisfaction with life?

Check out the site, then tune in tonight. Here's a teaser:

The Neanderthals-there's no evidence that they had language. But they must have had a sophisticated form of communication. They were just like humans, they might would have had to have told other people how they're feeling, they would have had to look after their children and nurture them. They had to have made plans for group hunting and general movement. So what sort of communications system did they have? Now I came to the conclusion which must have been based on high degrees of musicality. Because we can see traces of that in our nearest living relatives. This seems to be the only form of communication with that language that would have been complex to allow them to have function as a social group, and yet not gone that extra step to modern language. So I think they communicated by using sets of phrases, almost like musical phrases that would have had semantic meanings, phrases such as something that would translate into "Let us share meat," "We'll go hunting" or "How are you feeling?" but would have been expressed in musical tones, different types of pitches, different types of rhythms. They might have used these also to build a sense of group identity, very much how we use music today, especially for caring for infants, you know just like we do today with our youngest children before they got language, we sing to them and move them rhythmically . I'm sure the Neanderthals would have been doing exactly the same.

And of course: watching my kids grow musically is truly priceless.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Tuesday, June 23, 2009
A Lack of Message Discipline

Consider the following two quotes from two recent posts on the Discovery Institute's "Evolution News and Views" blog:

So, according to the DI, evidence that is contrary to current evolutionary theory is not allowed...except when such evidence and the accompanying analysis gets published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Then, the critical responses to those publications merely show that the "mainstream Darwinian scientific community" is "closed off" and "ignor[ing] scientific dissent."

I know the DI has a lot of contributors on their blog, but one would think they could find the time to read each others' posts.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Sunday, June 21, 2009
Moment of Geek

Fourteen-year-old Caroline Moore is the youngest person ever to discover a supernova.

Ms. Moore was interviewed last week on The Rachel Maddow Show. I thought the interview was both entertaining and informative.

Here it is:

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Tuesday, June 16, 2009
July 3rd Powell Observatory Event in KC Area

I just received the following announcement from Kansas Citizens for Science:

Kansas Citizens for Science and The Astronomical Society of Kansas City present Powell Observatory Event

The public is invited to a free Year of Science 2009 event sponsored by Kansas Citizens for Science and The Astronomical Society of Kansas City on Friday, July 3, 2009, 8:30 p.m. The event will feature:

* Viewing the night sky using the extraordinary Powell Observatory 30" Newtonian telescope, and
* A short presentation, "400 Years After Galileo," by Jackie Marsh, KCFS Board.

Please invite friends and family.

Powell Observatory is located at 10297 W 263rd St, Louisburg, KS 66053

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Monday, June 15, 2009
Freshwater and Academic Freedom

The case of John Freshwater has been discussed extensively in the blogosphere. Steve Goble, of the Mansfield (OH) News-Journal, cuts through the hysterical cries of "Freshwater's being persecuted because he's a Christian" and reminds us of a few salient points: that Freshwater burned a cross into a student's arm and that his science teaching was questionable at best.

My husband has fond memories of living in Mansfield during part of his childhood. It's a gorgeous town with oodles of hills and trees, plenty of storm sewers for kids to play in(!), and a lush botanical garden. When he was 8, my husband had set up a small telescope on the deck in the backyard and was teaching the neighborhood kids about the stars. He headed up a biker's gang, one that patrolled the streets carrying first-aid kits to help kids who'd wiped out on their bicycles. To this day, he speaks highly of the gifted-talented program in the Mansfield schools during that era. All in all, it sounds like Mansfield was a good place to be a high-energy kid.

Down the road in Mt. Vernon, in the domain of John Freshwater? Not so much, it seems. The community seems to be beset with teachers who've confused their classrooms for chapels, and the fact that it's taken years for Freshwater to face any consequences for his actions doesn't speak well for the school or district administration. Perhaps those administrators feared rocking the boat, or maybe they were complicit in Freshwater's mission. Either way, a generation of students has been taught that evolution is a lie, that creationism is valid science, and that it's laudable for a public school teacher to push his beliefs on his captive audience in a perverted sense of "academic freedom."

Steve Goble reminds us what academic freedom really means, with added bolding:

Freshwater's lawyers may press an "academic freedom" argument, insisting teachers must be able to discuss a wide range of ideas in order to do their jobs. The argument sounds impressive, loaded with yummy fair-play goodness and seems like a common-sense idea -- until you consider that those who support teaching creationism in public schools want the academic freedom to teach the equivalent of five plus five equals nineteen.

If there actually was a scientific case to be made for creationism, the academic freedom argument would work. But there isn't such a case, and so the academic freedom argument fails.

Here's an academic freedom argument that does make sense: Proponents of creationism and intelligent design have the academic freedom to assemble a legitimate scientific case. They've always had that freedom, and haven't made a case yet, but they're welcome to try.

Freshwater's supporters try to cloud the issue by distracting us with irrelevancies. Keep in mind that this is not about academic freedom. It's not about a Bible on a desk. It's about a public school teacher robbing parents of the right to decide how their children will be brought up religiously. It's about a public school teacher physically abusing the kids he's supposed to be protecting.

It's about a so-called teacher flouting REAL science to proselytize the kids under his care.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Einstein was right!

Creationists have long sought to get their curriculum into public school science classes by using propaganda to influence the democratic process rather than by actually doing science.

Answers in Genesis' Creation Museum in Kentucky is a major weapon in the arsenal to spread their sectarian views to kids. The "museum" claims great success so far:

Creation Museum's attendance exceeds expectations

Two years after its controversial opening, the Creation Museum has drawn 720,000 visitors, far more than the 250,000 annually organizers predicted. It brought in $7 million in receipts last fiscal year, with organizers saying it has had an economic impact of more than $20 million.

. . . which immediately reminded me of Albert Einstein's famous quote:

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the the universe.

The last part of the article notes that

Biologist Gene Kritsky, a professor at College of Mount St. Joseph in nearby Cincinnati, said he realizes that polls show almost half of Americans don't accept the evolutionary explanation and recognizes the right to believe in any view. But he worries the museum cloaks religion in science.

"The Bible is not a science book," he said. "In Job, it says that the Earth rests on pillars, but we don't teach that to children."

(emphasis by csa)

One more time: this isn't an issue of science v religion. It's a sectarian squabble over different interpretations of Holy Scripture.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Tuesday, June 9, 2009
June's Science Cafe Hays

What do you know about using stable isotopes in bird feathers to figure out where the birds have been?

Yeah, me neither! But if you'd like that to change, come on down to Cafe Semolino's in Hays next Tuesday, June 16th, as biochemist/amateur birder Dave Rintoul visits us from Kansas State University's Division of Biology. Dave's an expert at explaining arcane science topics in layman's terms and has oodles of patience, so don't hesitate to ask him about this topic: How does it work? How do we know it works? Of what use is it? What are its limitations? Why should we care?

Visit our Science Cafe website - and on Facebook - and Cafe Semolino's MySpace page!

I'm just about finished planning out the rest of the Cafes for 2009, and will start working on 2010 in a couple of weeks. What are you curious about? Let me know and I'll try to get it set up!

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Monday, June 8, 2009
New Resource on Transitional Fossils

As part of my summer break, I am finally finishing Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. As I read, I can't help but notice the parts where Darwin's thinking on the subject of genetics was incorrect and/or incomplete. Despite these obvious problems, it truly is amazing how much Darwin got right.

For instance, the scant fossil record of Darwin's era was one of his major disappointments because it seemed to offer little to support his theory of evolution by natural selection:

Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.

Charles Darwin
The Origin of Species
Chapter 9 - On the Imperfection of the Geological Record

In the century and a half since Darwin, paleontologists have collected an immense array of transitional fossils that have resoundingly confirmed Darwin's ideas concerning evolution and common descent.

On the topic of transitional fossils, the latest issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach is now available for free online. It looks to be an invaluable resource for teachers and students wanting to dig deeper into the fossil evidence of evolution.

Here are direct links to just a few of the articles to get you started:

The Evolutionary Emergence of Vertebrates From Among Their Spineless Relatives

The Fish-Tetrapod Transition: New Fossils and Interpretations

Downsized Dinosaurs: The Evolutionary Transition to Modern Birds

From Land to Water: the Origin of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises

posted by Jeremy Mohn

Saturday, June 6, 2009
Survey says . . .

not much, yet!

If you're a scientist or a science teacher, please go here to take a 4-question opinion survey about science and scientists.

Thanks! We'll be using the data to put together some Year of Science 2009 activities around Kansas.

posted by Cheryl Shepherd-Adams

Friday, June 5, 2009
What is wrong with this picture?

Here's a pictorial hint:

Charles Darwin (left) and Richard Dawkins (right)

That's right. Despite what the Discovery Institute would like us to believe, Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins are two completely different people!

The first picture is a screen shot of the revised introductory video that is now posted on the Discovery Institute's "faith + evolution" website. They have secretly updated their version of the video to identify the true source of the "pitiless indifference" quote. (The original version of the video - with the original misattribution - can still be viewed on Illustra Media's YouTube channel.)

It is heartening to see the DI at least acknowledge the dishonesty of the original video. Unfortunately, they have not corrected the misleading insinuation that Richard Dawkins's provocative prose is the inevitable conclusion that must be drawn from Charles Darwin's view of the world. Rather than admit that they were wrong to conflate the views of the two men, they have merely softened their lie by silently removing the obvious misattribution.

All of this makes John West's recent comments in defense of his organization's "faith + evolution" website all the more hypocritical.

"In a good dialogue, both parties typically at least assume the good faith of each other and try to respond with arguments based on evidence, not specious attacks on motives."

Why would anyone assume that the Discovery Institute acts in good faith when they can't even bring themselves to acknowledge that they were caught telling a blatant lie?

I do not know the answer to that question.

But I do know what happens when you assume.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

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