A Letter to Nelson McCausland

Texas SBOE have found a friend in Northern Ireland:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/may/26/northern-ireland-ulster-museum-creationism

If you haven’t been following, Culture Minister Nelson McCausland is pushing for museums in his country to promote creationism along side displays illustrating scientific theories of origins. One of his constituents shared a letter to McCausland with me, and also granted permission to use it at the AE blog. So, without further introduction, here is a reprint of that correspondence:

Mr McCausland

I am writing this letter out of concern, not out of religious intolerance or to force my own agenda. The concern is due to your letter to the National Museum trustees about the possibility of inclusion of alternative views of creation. I hope that you will take the time to read this to understand exactly why this is a mistake and hopefully to shed a little light on a few things you seem to be mistaken about.

Firstly I would like to highlight the fundamental flaws of creationism and the so called ‘scientific proof’ of it. I am not sure if you are aware of the Kitzmiller/Dover Trial in America 2005 when concerned parents took out a lawsuit against a public school district that required the presentation of intelligent design/creationism as an alternative to evolution as an explanation of the origin of life. Creationist ‘scientists’ were invited to the trial to show their evidence and prove that it was scientific, and they faced off against accepted science and scientists. It is worth mentioning that the scientist charged with defeating the creationist/intelligent design camp was a devout Christian (Kenneth Miller) and that the judge was also a devout Christian (Judge John E. Jones III) and a right hand man of George Bush.

It is not mere hyperbole to state that this was the most important moment in the defense of science. It was to much relief and satisfaction that the court ruled emphatically against the creationist/intelligent design position. In his 139-page decision Judge Jones took the creationist case to task and I find this point most relevant:

“ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.” (Page 89)

It is clear that when asked to come forward and put their case and all their evidence on the table they didn’t just fall short, they had nothing. It would be hoped that this would have put this situation to rest but it is still thriving in the United States and apparently in our home country. I recently visited a creationist seminar in a local church, and it disturbed me at what was being taught to the congregation as ‘fact’, I feel that people in the position of talking and administering to the congregation/public have a responsibility of being honest with what is fact and not bending evidence to fit the worldview they have.

To say that the world is 4,000-10,000 years old is nothing short of irresponsible, you have in a single statement infused doubt in people’s mind of the accuracy of geology, paleontology, chemistry, physics, biology, morphology, genetics, molecular biology, cosmology, biogeography and so on, all of which help each other positively in the proof of age of the earth. There is no mere speculation here, we can put the evidence on the table and show you how these things work and how they prove what accepted science is. I would hope that you have at least researched behind the claims of creationist science before publicly claiming them as a viable alternative but I feel you haven’t as you would have quickly seen that the so called proofs are nothing short of pseudo-scientific speculation.

Christianity is not negated by accepting the big bang or evolution; the scientific evidence can be seen as the method and not the reason. In fact there is a wide acceptance of these matters throughout the Christian community and I would urge you to read some of the American Scientific Affiliation’s work who are a fellowship of Christians in science. Science is not out to disprove god, and I would dare say it can’t, so there is really no need to want to put a faith-based position alongside science in a museum.

We have a responsibility in this world to operate within what we know, what we can observe in our shared reality. What we cannot do is subvert overwhelming evidence for the sake of a faith position, which is a dangerous path to put a society on. If we do this where would we stop? Would we also delve into pagan creation stories? If you want to open a display talking about religious creation mythology which covers the scope of all religions in our community I would be absolutely behind it but only if it was all inclusive and not running alongside scientific displays.

You made the point that the majority of this country is Christian and that this is somehow a justification for including creationist myth and I just want to say that it is a completely logical fallacy to assume that ‘might makes right.’ Science is in no way a democracy; it’s constantly scrutinized, re-evaluated and goes where the data takes us not where we want to take it. It is worrying to hear an elected minister talk in such a way and I’d hoped that our country would be able to be more religiously progressive given the past we have had, but this is in fact a severe step back whether you can see it or not.

If you feel strongly about this, as I am sure you do, then perhaps you could push for a public forum where we can get creationist science and accepted science to debate their cases. I assure you that it is not intellectual elitism or over-confidence when I say that it would become apparent very, very quickly that there is no case or evidence for creationist science and it would leave a lot believers confused as to why the people in power have been misleading them.

If religion is to survive in any meaningful context in this society it is necessary that it accepts reality, this in no way takes away people’s beliefs but will hopefully enrich their view of the world around them.

I look forward to your reply,

—Gareth

We get email: another creationist punching bag

So today, there’s a fellow who’s shown up in our inboxes claiming, at different times, to be a “Christian Psychiatrist” (both words capitalized), a neuroscientist, and a physician, though his nick is “risky-kid,” which doesn’t sound like any doctor I want to see. I call bullshit. But maybe the guy got his degrees from Patriot University and that’s how they do things. Anyway, he caught me at the right time, and so if you wish to amuse yourself reading my beatdown, here ’tis. I’m in italics.


Caveat: you are likely to find the tone of this response extremely condescending and rude. This isn’t an apology, merely a heads-up. I’m afraid public displays of smug ignorance bring out the worst in me. It’s not a thing I feel I need to work on.

From:
Subject: RE: I am a thiest I come in peace
To: tv@atheist-community.org
Date: Thursday, May 13, 2010, 4:37 PM

My approach it an integrative evidence based approach, in which scripture and nature rightly understood always harmonize. If there are apparent contradictions I look for errors in both my understanding of scripture and my understanding of nature. I have found errors in both places over time.

What is your basis for considering scripture valid as evidence of anything in the first place?

I find Darwinian evolution held together only by an insistence on forcing evidence to be interpreted in ways that are favorable to that theory rather than actually letting the evidence speak for itself.

Good for you, but that only shows you fail to understand the evidence for evolution and how it shores up the theory.

The list of scientific evidence which refutes Darwinian evolution is enormous, but this email isn’t a place for me to recite all of such evidence.

Nope. Sorry. You don’t get to show up here and spout the same tired creationist canards without backing them up. And yes, we’re aware that there are loads of creationist websites out there making arguments against evolution that sound very scholarly and scientific. But has any of their research actually been reproduced by other people without an agenda to push? Where are the peer-reviewed articles demonstrating that evolution by natural selection has been refuted? I mean in legitimate, recognized scientific journals, not those the creationists print up to circulate amongst themselves.

Those biased by years of evolutionary education however have failed to see how subjective their thinking has become and instead criticize any interpretation that deviates from the “accepted” norm as “blind” or “faith” based.

Perhaps the “accepted norm” is “accepted” because it’s what the evidence actually supports. Seriously, you started out with basic scientific illiteracy and now you’re projecting the attitudes of creationists onto scientists, and you’re not even trying not to be lame about it.

Sorry, but until you show you actually know a damn thing about evolutionary biology, I see no reason to take any of this drivel seriously. If you wish any credibility for your claim that you have “read widely in the scientific literature”, simply demonstrate that you’re right and that you have the expertise you claim to have. Here is your assignment:

1. Explain endogenous retroviruses using the evolutionary model.
2. Explain the creationist alternative.
3. Demonstrate precisely how the latter refutes the former, with citations.
Extra Credit: Submit your work to Nature and win a Nobel Prize.

But when one has already concluded that creation didn’t happen, and evolution did, then all the evidence is filtered through a bias which prevents real learning.

Yeah, again, you seem to have covered the whole subject of projection pretty well in your training to be a “Christian Psychiatrist”. Of course, it could never be the case that someone who has already concluded there’s an invisible magic man in the sky filters evidence through that preconception, and has “real learning” prevented thereby.

As a physician, and particularly a neuroscientist, I do find the common theory that the brain evolved over millions of years to be unscientific.

Then I’m going to take a wild guess and conclude that you’re either A) not a neuroscientist B) a lousy neuroscientist.

I have never seen one scientific experiment, reproducible, in which any species, by forces of nature and environment grew new lobes onto its brain. This is what is commonly taught in the neuro literature and I ask what evidence to support this – of course there is none.

I thought you were familiar with the scientific literature. It took me precisely 2 seconds to Google this.

But tell me, where are the reproducible experiments that have shown Godidit? I mean, clearly, the scientific literature must be overflowing with them. Or is it that the Big Science Conspiracy has struck again, I wonder?

Really, only three things need to exist for evolution to occur, and they’re all things that we know exist: Sexual reproduction, heritable variation, and selection pressure. Perhaps you have some research that shows none of those things come into play in the process after all…?

Another equally resonable intepretation of the evidence is that a designer built and expanded His design to create variations on a theme. When we consider all the vehicles on the road from carts, to carriages, to bicycles, to autos, trucks etc. We can see various elements in common to all and order them from simple to complex, yet none would argue that these vehicles evolved on their own, all would rightly realize that designers included elements that are essential to the function of each (wheels) etc.

Yeah yeah yeah. And if you found a watch on the beach…

Honestly, there are 18-year-old biology freshmen who could explain selection to you. You’re making the basic creationist fallacy of comparing artifacts to natural organisms. The development from simplicity to complexity in evolutionary science really is Biology 101 stuff, and very widely understood by those, unlike you, actually versed in the field. Seriously, your remedial education begins here.

If that doesn’t interest you, then demonstrate, please, that the concept of a designer is scientifically falsifiable. What would a non-designed lifeform look like?

Therefore, I do not believe science has provided reasonable evidence to conclude a naturalistic explanation, and rather I find the weight of evidence for a designer

Huh? Then where is that evidence? All you’ve shown us is what you consider “reasonable interpretations” of evidence you haven’t even convinced us you understand at a baseline level. (Indeed you’ve shown pretty unambiguously that you don’t.) And all you backed that up with is whining about how you think scientists are all biased and subjective for not seeing your god in everything. You also seem to think that “integrating” modern scientific evidence with the writings of a Bronze Age holy book produced by an ignorant, pre-scientific, and primitive culture that barely even had indoor plumbing to be a valid approach to researching this vast and complex field. Which, frankly, makes about as much sense as figuring out how to get a girlfriend by integrating your actual interactions with women with the experiences of Archie and Peter Parker in comic books. In other words, you have something of a credibility deficit here.

and in fact find two antagonistic principles at play throughout the entire earth ecosystem – what I term the law of love, which is the principle of life, and the survival of the fittest principle (fear and selfishness) which is an infection which damages and brings death. Viruses, as I see it are examples of the infection to creation which damages and destroys, their very function is merely self replication and take without giving, and results in destroying the host and
itself in the end. This is exactly what sin is and does, selfishness, taking, destorying and dying.

Well I guess I have gone on long enough.

Long enough for me to conclude you are either not being truthful about being an actual neuroscientist widely read in the literature, or that academic standards for people in your profession have crashed through the floor. Perhaps you got your degree from Patriot University?

A Surprising Opinion

I met a professional paleontologist recently. We seemed to share some similar opinions on the Texas State Board of Education. But we parted views when I heard that he has presented before to Evangelicals, and that he has told them, when confronted, that he cannot comment on the validity of the theory of Intelligent Design.

“Really?” I asked. “You can’t assess the validity of ID as a theory? But it’s not falsifiable—it makes no predictions.”

He said that Evolutionary Theory makes no predictions. And this stunned me. He qualified it by restating it “makes only contingent predictions.”

We were walking as we talked, and had to quickly part ways based on where we were each headed, but I decided to look up his statement to see the meaning of “contingent prediction.” It appears that this means that it doesn’t make predictions along the lines of a physics formula—mathematically precise. I found this odd, because this, to me, would be an irrelevancy whether true or not true.

The actual concern, in my view, is that we do know there are things about this world that would be very different, indeed—demonstrably so—if evolution were not a reality. And the same cannot be said for Intelligent Design—because the mechanism—the intelligent designer—is not examinable. Evolution as a mechanism, on the other hand, is very much examinable.

If evolution were untrue, for example, I would not expect to have successful domestic breeding programs. How would breeding individuals with certain, specific phenotypes even hope to produce increased numbers of offspring that also demonstrate those phenotypes, if phenotypic data is not relayed by reproduction in some fashion? If humans did not observe or discover that you can relay traits from one generation to the next with increased frequency by artificially selecting for them in breeding—domestic breeding would never have even been attempted. Evolution through artificial selection is tried and true. Who could possibly deny it?

Or, what if we had discovered that organisms of different species, at a genetic level, bear no evidence of relationships to one another? What if my biology was incomparable to that of a chimpanzee? As distantly related as to a squid or a fly? Or what if none of us appeared to be related at all? Why should some animals be more or less “like me”? Why would we do medical testing, for drugs or treatments ultimately intended for use in humans, on animals like rats and chimpanzees and pigs, rather than spiders or goldfish? Would you feel as safe using a drug that was tested on a spider prior to use in humans, rather than on another mammal?

Or, how is it that, in digging for fossils, field scientists can predict the types of life forms one will find in a given area at a given depth representing a specific point in our Earth’s history? Would you think it a good prediction that we would find human fossils digging in a location known to represent the Mesozoic Era? Why not?

How has speciation been observed in both natural and laboratory environments—if it doesn’t occur naturally via evolution? How did it happen?

Any of these things, and I’m sure many others not mentioned, would be a problem for Evolutionary Theory if it had turned out to be different than it was. That is because Evolution does predict a particular type of reality that can absolutely turn out to be different than predicted.

But what does Intelligent Design predict? What sort of world is not the type of world an intelligent god would produce? Would horrid birth defects throw a wrench in it? Would flightless birds? Blind fish with residual eyes? Volcanoes? Tsunamis? Earthquakes? Plagues? Famine? Pestilence? Utopia?

Seriously—what is the difference between a world nature and natural laws would have generated without an intelligent designer, and one that a god—or intelligent designer—would have produced? What would falsify Intelligent Design? Evolution has put its cards on the table; and, over the decades, the findings have only upheld Darwin’s core concept: Populations absolutely change over time due to variation in information that is passed from one generation to the next.

Evolution is a reality—a fact anyone can observe. We all understand—or should by this time—that we don’t find the exact same sets of animals going back through the fossil record, as the ones we have today. The changes have been demonstrably grand, resulting in very different life forms in our modern world than what existed long, long ago.

I wish I would have had time to ask on what grounds a man of science scoffs at the Texas State Board of Education for it’s handling of biology textbooks, if he truly believes that science cannot assess the validity of something like Intelligent Design, and also that it offers no more in the way of falsification than Evolution? Since he and I agree the Board mishandled the biology standards—what is his basis for his view, if religious “theories” are just as valid, in his professional opinion as a paleontologist, as demonstrated models used in modern biological research?

Denyse O’Leary supplants Ray Comfort as World’s Stupidest Christian™

After holding the title courageously for most of his adult life, Ray Comfort has been forced to relinquish his unofficial designation of World’s Stupidest Christian™. Meet the newly crowned title-holder, Denyse O’Leary, whose risible record of attempted evolution denial has leveled up into heretofore unexplored realms of awesomeness with this quoted passage, which simply must be read to be believed. Warning: you will lose about 20 IQ points just reading this, but the fact you won’t be able to stop laughing for a week should, one hopes, compensate.

Congratulations, Denyse, the new reigning World’s Stupidest Christian™! Take a bow.

McLEROY IS OUT!

Okay, we had Rethuglican primaries here in Texas yesterday, and there is some good news to report on the SBOE front. What rocks is the upset of Don McLeroy by his opponent, Thomas Ratliff. It was a near thing, only an 800-vote spread, which just goes to show how powerful the extremists among the just-don’t-give-a-shit-what-anyone-thinks right wing still are, despite McLeroy’s shameless track record of turning Texas into a global laughingstock during his tenure. Now I’m sure the Ol’ Boy Network will kick in, and Rick Perry — who, I’m sorry to say, almost certainly will win another term — will find Mac something to do. But at least we won’t have to gawp at this mustachioed moron as he boldly stands up to the experts at SBOE hearings anymore.

Now, other seats look a little dicey. Ken “Piltdown Man” Mercer easily squashed his opponent, Tim Tuggey, which blows. And the vacancy left by überloon Cynthia Dunbar has come down to a runoff between Marsha Farney and Dunbar’s hand-picked mini-me, Brian Russell. So we have to hope things go Farney’s way, because District 10 will go Republican in the general election and any Democratic or progressive indie candidate cannot be expected to have a hope.

There’s more possible not-so-good news in the loss of another incumbent, Geraldine Miller, to her challenger, George Clayton. Clayton, on first blush, doesn’t look bad, with his harsh criticisms of teaching to standardized tests rather than actually engaging students to learn for real. But sadly, he is also on record boasting that he is “an educator” and then promptly pissing that cred away by saying, “It’s an impossibility to talk about evolution without mentioning creationism,” forever branding him an assclown. (Inasmuch as one might say, “Evolution is true and creationism is retarded,” George is essentially right, but I suspect that isn’t what he means.) Sorry, George, but when you’re asked a simple no-DUH question about the age of the Earth, you don’t lapse into mindless spinspeak like “I’m not going to cut [the Earth] in half and count the rings,” not after bragging that you’re supposed to be a fucking “educator,” goddammit. You answer that question by saying, “Between 4-5 billion years…next?” unless you want to be sent to the corner in the pointy hat. The last thing we need on the SBOE is another uneducated “educator.”

So it’s hardly a clean sweep for reason and intelligence in the primaries. Ratliff could turn into the Manchurian Candidate all on his own. Yet it ain’t over till it’s over. Dems and independents could still have a chance to rally voters and cause some upsets down the road in the general election.

But damn!…McLEROY’S OUT! And that alone makes me ready to throw a block party. Hopefully Texas has decided it’s ready to start evolving after all.

Darwin Day 2010

Aaaand I hope you’re having a nice one.

Apropos of Don’s post below, I can only reiterate the threat to science education (as well as to civics/history education, and anything else the wingnuts don’t feel meshes with their ideological “white Christians did everything!” talking points) by the current SBOE. So in that spirit I direct your attention to Teach Them Science, a website dedicated to fighting the wingnut agenda.

This isn’t a perfect meeting of the minds. For one thing, it’s a joint project between Center for Inquiry and The Clergy Letter Project. The latter is a group of religious leaders promoting positive science education and resisting creationist ignorance. Now, that’s a good thing. But I can sympathize with PZ’s wariness of the group and the way they try to pretend science and religion can somehow be simpatico. Still, I can see that perhaps such a stance is a PR necessity at present. With the vast majority of the public still clinging to religion’s skirts, good science education would be a hard sell if it came with the message that “Now you can dump all that stupid God bullshit!” There’s a whole page on the Teach Them Science site that addresses the question of whether you can accept evolution and still believe in Sky Daddy, and I admit it kind of makes me cringe. But I have to remember that’s because I’ve evolved beyond superstition, and most people aren’t so lucky. So, you know, baby steps. Sure, a person can be scientifically literate and theistic all at once, though I still don’t understand why they’d want to (lookin’ at you, Ken Miller). But the point of proper scientific education first and foremost is to fill people’s heads with facts — something the currently SBOE is fighting tooth and nail — and let them draw conclusions about worthwhile philosophies on their own after they have all the facts. It’s the SBOE that wants to deny students that freedom of choice, and impose upon them not merely a Christian philosophy, but a specifically conservative American fundamentalist Protestant one.

So, mindful of the fact that sometimes war makes for strange bedfellows, I think movements like Teach Them Science stand to do more good than harm, and that the anti-science agenda of the far right needs to be fought by any means necessary.

Ill-educated fools in charge of education

Yes, it’s another Don McLeroy post. This Washington Monthly piece is currently making the rounds. If you haven’t seen it, you aren’t aware of just how bad things are in Texas.

Seriously, this will make you ill. Is there no depth to the ideological delusions cretins like this want to enshrine in our schools? Don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical.

In honor of McLeroy, and inspired by one of PZ’s headlines today, I thought I’d create a little article of anticreowear, for all your scientifically sartorial needs. I plan to wear mine proudly. Those of you obsessed with the whole “civility” thing will clutch your pearls and admonish me sternly about it, I’m sure. Go ahead and take your concern as noted in advance. Read the attached article — shit, just read the first two paragraphs — and you’ll understand, I hope, why I’m beyond any pretense of civility with the likes of McLeroy.

Happy 150th, Origin!

Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, and, reports have it, the mainstream media has decided, in its infinitely misguided goal to be “fair and balanced” about things, to give publicity to ignoramuses. So, I’m told, Stephen Meyer spouts his usual string of canards on CNN, and Time has apparently weighed in by interviewing some dimwit named Dennis Sewell on Darwin’s “Dark Legacy” (ooooooo!). You know, the usual Godwinning, “evilushun is to blame for school shootings oh noes!!!” feces. Well, I choose to ignore ignorance. And I’m not linking to it, because blithering anti-science idiocy does not deserve to be rewarded with links. Instead, I’ll simply raise a toast to one of the greatest and most important works of science of all time. Long after Christianity — and indeed, the human race — has settled into dust, whatever living things remain on this earth will continue to evolve, and the panoply of life will continue. Which is the reason Roger Ebert has described evolution as the “most consoling of all the sciences.” Because it not only tells us that life will find a way, but it tells us how. All thanks to Chuck D. Well done, sir.

Kirk n’ Ray’s latest folly

By now I’m sure everyone knows about Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort’s plan to give away their own edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, complete with their own 50-page introduction packed with contemptible creotard lies, at 50 college campuses this November. UT-Austin is one of those campuses, and you can bet I’ll be there to get my copy! I heartily encourage Atheist Longhorns and literally everyone from the university’s Biology department to snap up copies as well, until they run out. And of course, make sure the uneducated drones giving away the book’s are appropriately humiliated and schooled. They evidently haven’t considered the likely consequences of showing up in an environment where people are, by and large, well educated, and trying to spread their ignorant twaddle. Let’s ensure they leave with a full understanding of those consequences.

Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog (Jim edits rogerebert.com, and both he and Ebert are outspoken science supporters) offers a very funny takedown of Kirk and Ray’s idiocy, and I think it’s a good thing that this whole exercise receives as much derision in advance of the actual event as possible. What an awesome thing it would be if those dispatched to give away these books encountered, at all 50 universities (and I’ve read reports there may be more than 100 universities by now), a horde of fearless and outspoken experts in science who calmly shoot down their foolishness and lies, like shooting clay pigeons out of the sky. This ought to be an event they live to regret.

Dembski has Glenn Beck Envy?

You’d think it was lame enough that the [snort] “Isaac Newton [snicker...heehee] of Information Theory [hhahahaHAHAHAHA...ahem]” is so bereft of actual material to teach his hapless students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that he bases a full 20% of their grade on how active they are in trolling the comments of science blogs (seriously…click here and scroll down to “Spring 2009…AP410″). Now, can it be that, inspired by conservative histrionics and tantrums at recent “town hall” meetings on health care reform, he now wants them to disrupt science lectures? Say it ain’t so!

SMU is hosting several awesome events this weekend celebrating Darwin’s 200th anniversary, and Dembski has told his students he wants them going.

I don’t want you going there merely as spectators but will indicate in class how you might actively participate and engage the Darwin-lovers you’ll find there.

“Darwin-lovers.” Cute. Very, erm, scientific.

Now, Dembski doesn’t exactly say “cause a disruption and shout people down.” But, here’s the thing. It’s obvious, at this point, that poor old Dembski has basically given up. That bold and courageous five-year plan indicated in the Wedge Document to undermine “materialistic” science and replace it with New & Improved Jesus Science hasn’t gone so well. Yes, we have millions of uneducated and undereducated dimwits in the general public who reject evolution, but what Dembski wanted was academic respectability, and that has eluded him. Because neither he nor anyone in the late and unlamented ID camp ever produced any research, any science, any peer reviewed papers showing that the evidence for ID was more reasonable to accept than that for evolution.

So now he’s reduced to asking his students to do his work for him, by trolling blogs and “challenging Darwin-lovers” at seminars held by real universities. As this exercise will lead to very embarrassing encounters for these poor deluded kids when real experts and scientifically literate people school them hard, one could almost call it cruel. I can see some poor 20-year-old kid, deciding to “actively engage the Darwin-lovers,” raising his hand during the Q&A, confidently spouting some ignorant ID canard, and being met with gales of laughter and some steely cold facts. It’s almost unpleasant to contemplate, like visualizing a squirrel being squashed by a semi. (Okay, I lie. It’s actually funny to contemplate and not nearly that bad. But I’m striving for “positive atheism” here. Work with me.)

It’s over, Bill. Your grade: fail.