Friday, November 30, 2007

Forget neutral - how do I jump off this train heading over the cliff?

At least I'm not in Texas, where the State Board of Education's runaway train, driven by their religio-political-appointee Chair, is taking all the children aboard with them as they head full-steam off the cliff and into the dark-ages! So worried are they about protecting the delicate sensibilities of children from the assaults of the E-word from a philosopher of science (SHOCK! HORROR!) that they had to force Chris Comer, the Texas director of science curriculum to resign for the crime of forwarding an email announcing a talk by said philosopher: you know, Barbara Forrest, that scary old wicked-witch who testified in the Dover trial! And was seen most recently on PBS's re-enactment of the trial, explaining the transitional fossil she discovered connecting creationism with intelligent design. We can't have young minds corrupted by such truths can we? But if you want to read that horrible email (only when the children are asleep!), it is available on the immoral internets, of course.

Texas Citizens for Science has the whole sordid story. What struck me was the Board of Education's use of the word "neutral":

TEA Policy of Neutrality Toward Creationism and Evolution

TEA has a new policy, one of neutrality between biological evolution and Intelligent Design Creationism. This new policy was put in place in September when Dr. Don McLeroy--an outspoken Creationist and activist for Intelligent Design Creationism and its marketing campaign who was appointed the new Chair of the State Board of Education (SBOE) in July--decided to start giving the TEA staff some tough love. By forwarding an email message that publicized a lecture in Austin by Barbara Forrest, a Southeastern Louisiana University professor of philosophy and Dover trial witness, that supported evolution (as required by the Texas science standards) and opposed the teaching of Intelligent Design Creationism, Chris Comer ran afoul of the new policy and was asked to resign or be fired immediately. As we will see, this excuse to terminate Ms. Comer was trumped-up and illegitimate. The memo to her from the TEA contained several other criticisms, all of which were petty or insultingly insignificant. Amazingly, this memo is now available for the public to read thanks to the American-Statesman (see below), and it reveals the lengths to which the top administrators of our state's public education agency will go to silence dissent from their new policy of not criticizing Creationism.

when their agenda all along was something else.
The real reason Director of Science Chris Comer was forced to resign is because the top TEA administrators and some SBOE members wanted her out of the picture before the state science standards--the science TEKS--were reviewed, revised, and rewritten next year beginning in January 2008, and she would have some influence to make sure the standards were scientifically accurate and of high quality. Plans are underway by some SBOE members and TEA administrators to diminish the requirement to teach about evolutionary biology in the Biology TEKS and to require instead that biology instructors "Teach the Controversy" about the "weaknesses" of evolution, that is, teach the Creationist-inspired and -created bogus controversy about evolution that doesn't exist within legitimate science. They may even want specific bogus weaknesses required. There are, of course, no legitimate scientific weaknesses with biological evolution as the natural process is understood by scientists. At the level at which it is taught in high school, evolutionary biology has no weaknesses, gaps, or problems. At higher levels, there are poorly-understood concepts, but these are not weaknesses: these are areas that need more research. Therefore, it is duplicitous to pretend such "weaknesses" and "controversy" exist. The so-called controversy is a manufactured controversy, one created primarily by the Discovery Institute to trump up the notion that there are disagreements among scientists about evolution and these should be taught to high school students. This "teach the controversy" and "weaknesses of evolution" ploy is an attempt to disparage, diminish, and distort evolution so students will not have confidence in one of the most highly-corroborated explanations in science.
Still think you can remain neutral on this moving train?

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mushrooms, Ecology, and Santa Claus!

Yes, its that time again! Our next Café Scientifique meeting is coming up soon. Please note that we are moving to a new location for this one, because Lenny's Bistro is closing down this week. So here's a reminder of the December Café with the new location.

Central Valley Café Scientifique presents:

Mushrooms, Ecology, & Santa Claus

by Dr. James Farrar
Plant Pathologist, California State University-Fresno

Monday, December 3, 2007, 6:30-8:30 PM
DiCicco’s Restaurant & Pizzeria
408 Clovis Avenue, Clovis, CA 93612; tel:559.299.2711

The restaurant is located at the southwest corner of Clovis Avenue and 4th Street. We are working with the restaurant to have a simplified menu of options available for the meeting to make things flow more smoothly.

And yes, we are also looking for a more suitable venue, so if you know of a more "bohemian" pub/cafe that might accommodate us, let me know.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

NOVA smacks down the cdesign proponentsists!


Wow, was that ever a serious smackdown that NOVA just handed down to proponents of intelligent design this evening! No wonder the IDiots at the DI are unhappy. Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial turned out to be an outstanding and gripping documentary of the saga of Kitzmiller vs. Dover School District. Even my 7-yr old Darwinista daughter was pulled in to watching large chunks of it. This one is definitely going on my holiday DVD order list from PBS, and I (like many of my colleagues, undoubtedly) will be pulling some of the outstanding science exposition bits out of it to add some multimedia pizazz to my lectures in Evolution next spring. Not that the social drama wasn't interesting, but I wouldn't necessarily take up classroom time with that material.

I could list a number of great things about this documentary were I to attempt a comprehensive review, but I won't do that here - there are many other better reviews out there that you can read online, including one from the multi-taskmaster PZ Myers, who live-blogged it! If you missed watching the show, wait for the DVD, or go online to the NOVA site on/after Nov 16 and watch it there - and if you can also multi-task, you could fire up the Pharyngula live coverage along with your popcorn and enjoy the thumping of intelligent design in all its multimedia goodness.

As for me, here are some quick highlights, my immediate favorite moments:

  • I somehow didn't know, and was therefore especially struck by the fact that the whole thing started in Dover over this mural by a student:


    I love it when artists get the creationists' goat - although in this case the mural was actually burned down by (apparently) the school board member who thus got the ball rolling on this trial. It so often starts with burning art, doesn't it?
  • The various segments of science interspersed between recreations of the trial (is it just me, or would we all be better off with a good Hollywood recreation of the courtroom drama? How about "Inherit the Wind - Part II"?) were especially good. My favorite would have to be the segment showing the discovery of the transitional tetrapod ancestor fossil Tiktaalik roseae (pictured above), which happened in parallel to the trial.
  • Another wonderful science segment addresses the evolution of the infamous bacterial flagellum. Not only do they have beautiful animations of the flagellum and its likely precursor secretory apparatus, but Nova also shows you how to do proper journalism when confronted with two unequal but opposite arguments. Rather than merely regurgitating the "irreducibly complex" flagellum argument in a (Be)he-said / she-said frame, the show brilliantly brings in DeRosier (Behe's acknowledged source for the idea) who systematically takes apart Behe's argument! One side can be wrong indeed - and how badly wrong at that!
  • And the transitional fossil of the day has to be "cdesign proponentsists"! It was immensely entertaining to watch Barbara Forrest in action digging through the 7000 strata of buried manuscript to find and piece together the missing links between the extinct (I wish) "creationists" and the soon to be endangered "design proponents" via this lovely fossil resulting from a copy-n-paste mutation.
What fun!

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial

Clear your schedule next tuesday evening at 8:00 PM, or set your Tivo/DVR folks! For the PBS series NOVA is set to air Judgment Day, which Nature's review promises to be a rigorous documentary covering the Dover vs. Kitzmiller trial. How rigorous, you ask? Well the only major participant of that famous trial who refused to be interviewed for the documentary is Michael Behe! They even have Judge Jones reading from his ruling, but no Behe! Surely this ought to be worth watching, right? Will it convince the naive believers (not the hardcore who will keep re-inventing creationism by some other name) that ID holds no water? Maybe not, but this could be one more thing worth keeping on hand to play to some of the misinformed (but "open minded") relatives one might meet over the holiday season, no?

Here's a preview:

video

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