Another chance to push back against the New Dark Age in Austin

Remember how the nutbags at the Institute for Creation Research (second cousins to the Institute for Hobgoblinology, one presumes) have been trying to gain legitimacy in Texas by being allowed to offer degrees in science education? Well, the meeting is coming up, and I hope a zillion people from the pro-science side turn up and tell the board just what a ridiculous proposal this is. Or, at the very least, ask that the creos show their peer reviewed research proving that the Earth was created after the domestication of the dog.

Heads up to George Innis, who posted the following to the CFI-Austin Yahoogroup mailing list:

It appears that The Coordinating Board, TheCB, will take up the Institute for Creation Research, ICR, request for a Certificate of Authority at their meeting on 25 April. This Certificate is the next step in ICR’s effort to offer a fundamentalist oriented advanced degree in science education. TheCB was scheduled to consider this matter earlier this year but ICR requested a delay when TheCB indicated that additional documentation would be required. TheCB’s Committee on Academic Excellence and Research will consider the proposal from 10AM until noon on the 24th in the Board Room. At this meeting the public may make statements of up to 3 minutes each. I am told that following this meeting the commissioner will finalize his recommendation. A decision is expected at the Board meeting the next day where discussion will probably be brief.

TheCB’s offices are at 1200 East Anderson Lane and the Board Room is Room 2.140.

Got that? April 25. If you want Texas to have 21st century — as opposed to 14th century — educational standards, take off work and be there.

Kenneth Miller’s lecture at UT

Kenneth Miller spoke at UT last night as part of an ongoing lecture series, Hot Science – Cool Talks, sponsored by the university’s Environmental Science Institute. I had no real idea of what to expect, and while it did not draw Dawkins-sized crowds, attendance was still huge, overflowing the lecture hall in Welch to SRO capacity. Prior to the lecture, several organizations like CFI-Austin and the Paleontological Society of Austin had display tables set up in the lobby, with cool fossils and that sort of thing. The crowd got so thick at one point that, while I was standing at the CFI table chatting with James Dee, the heat started making me feel a little woozy on my feet. Didn’t last long, though, but still another indicator that I need to get back in shape something awful.

I won’t go into as much detail about the lecture as I did Dawkins’, mainly because the webcast is archived and I strongly encourage you to listen to it yourself (you have to install something called Envivio first), as this was one of the best lectures about evolution and the ID debacle I’ve ever heard. Miller is a witty and engrossing public speaker, as only someone who’s been a professor at Brown for a quarter century can be. His Keynote presentation was excellent, far better in quality than Dawkins’ Powerpoint.

Miller spoke about the central scientific failing of ID, that its proponents just automatically want acceptance as a viable theory to be taught in schools without having to produce the actual science that would earn it acceptance, and he went on to document ID’s downfall at Dover. Some of Miller’s information here overlapped that of Barbara Forrest, who spoke here in November at a lecture that got Chris Comer (who was in attendance, as well as many folks from Texas Citizens for Science) fired. (One of Expelled‘s many lies is that it’s the courageous, forward thinking proponents of ID who are losing jobs for their views, but as reality makes clear, the opposite is actually true.)

However, the bulk of Miller’s talk was given over to impressively concise explanations as to how we know evolution is true, and where the claims of the ID camp collapse. Just to give a couple of quick examples: Miller first demolished Michael Behe’s claims about “irreducible complexity” in the bacterial flagellum. Behe’s claim in a nutshell is that, if you take apart the individual components of a complex system, and those individual components themselves have no function, than that proves irreducible complexity and refutes the notion that such a system evolved. However, Miller explained, if you take apart all of the little bits of the flagellum’s little rotary tail, you find those components do have functions. It’s just that, taken apart, those components did other things than what they ended up doing once they evolved into the flagellum’s motor. It was perhaps the most accessible and straightforward explanation for a lay audience about irreducible complexity and the flagellum I’ve ever heard, and one that left no doubt as to the failure of Behe’s concept.

Miller also explained how evolution does in fact have a wealth of transitional fossils, and indeed, the only problem science has with all its transitional fossils is determining just where transitions begin or end. He showed how the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People presents a graph featuring prehistoric fish and amphibians, which simply omits several known species in order to claim that “missing links” and “gaps” in the fossil record exist. And even in the cases where there were real gaps in that sequence, in recent years, those have been filled, for instance, by a little critter called Tiktaalik.

Miller also showed how evolutionary science managed to explain how human beings have one fewer pair of chromosomes than other primates. Scientists predicted that the only possible explanation is that one of these pairs must have fused together at some point in humanity’s evolutionary history…and sho nuff, that’s what we find in Chromosome 2: a fused chromosome with vestigial telomeres near the middle of the sequence (where they’d only be if a fusion had occurred), and two sets of vestigial centromeres, one no longer active. The evidence for evolution is simply everywhere — and even in your own body.

The Q&A was really good. One guy predictably asked Miller’s opinion of Expelled, which he wouldn’t give as he hasn’t yet seen it (“I understand it’s rather hard to get into,” he quipped to gales of laughter). He added that he was looking forward to seeing it, though. An adorable little girl who couldn’t have been more than five or six asked what all those flat-headed prehistoric fish ate. (Answer: probably exactly what fish today like to eat, algae, microbes, and very small fish.)

As I was on the front row, I actually got a question in. I asked, how can scientists counter propaganda efforts like Expelled, which are really anti-intellectual exercises in emotional button-mashing, which do not, in fact, present any kind of scientific case either way, and instead couch their anti-science views in terms of a “culture war,” where the teaching of evolution is simplistically condemned as evil and something that leads to things like Naziism.

Miller replied that we have the facts on our side, and simply putting those facts out there — that Hitler never once mentions Darwin in Mein Kampf but directly attributed his anti-Semitism to “the work of the Lord”; that the Third Reich in fact banned the teaching of Darwin’s theory; that Nazi soldiers wore belt buckles with the slogan “God [not Darwin] Is With Us” — ought to be sufficient to counter the lies of the anti-science fanatics. I wish I could agree with him. The fundamentalist mindset is not in any way a rational one. And if people have been taught to dismiss and in fact fear facts outright, then simply setting out the truth for them will usually just result in their closing their eyes and covering their ears and going “La la la la I can’t heeear you!” in a very loud voice. Hell, those stupid creationist “biology” textbooks that were presented in the recently-concluded California lawsuit actually printed statements like this: “If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.” That isn’t education, it’s indoctrination, and it’s such a hugely damaging act of abuse that it will take more than mere facts to counter it.

Miller is such a brilliant scientist that I must admit I’m flummoxed (as were many others in CFI that I talked to after the lecture) why he feels he needs to hold onto his Catholic beliefs. He never really addressed the dichotomy in his talk, though one question allowed him to touch on it in a brief way. Miller stated that he thinks it’s utterly absurd to think that being religious means you cannot be well versed in science too. He also said “Science transcends religion,” which I found interesting. In retrospect, if I had the chance to partake in the Q&A again, my question to him would be the following: “If your view is that science transcends religion, then what is your opinion of Dawkins’ statement to the effect that religions do in fact make scientific claims; specifically, that if the existence of the material universe is through the actions of some deity, then that is a question that can and should be examined by science? And if you disagree, why?” I guess I’ll just have to hold that until next time I get a chance to
see him. Miller did say that, if anyone in Texas would care to invite him back, he’d be happy to sit down with our SBOE and set them straight on a few things. That would be a great idea, as I do see Miller as being a guy who could successfully communicate the pro-evolution, pro-science message to a religious audience, who would be predisposed to dismiss atheist scientists like Dawkins and Myers who’ve been very public with their criticisms of religion.

(No, I’m not supporting the Nisbet “PZ and Dawkins should shut up” bogus “framing” position, only acknowledging that the pro-science side should have a wide variety of voices advocating for it. A Christian scientist will get his message through to Christians where a non-Christian scientist would hit a brick wall.)

In all, a great lecture which I’m very glad I attended. Yeah, this report turned into my usual long-winded epic post. But go listen to the webcast anyway. Finally, Miller has a new book — Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul — dropping on June 12, which can be pre-ordered through Amazon now.

Kenneth Miller tomorrow night at UT

Kenneth Miller is both a staunch defender of evolutionary science (he was a lead witness in the Dover trial), and a theist. This event on Friday night ought to be interesting coming on the heels of Dawkins’ appearance. Maybe I’ll see some of you locals there. Here’s the skinny direct from CFI-Austin. If you’re not local, or you are but cannot attend, note the webcast information in the following.

Hot Science – Cool Talks Outreach Lecture Series

“God, Darwin, and Design: Lessons from the Dover Monkey Trial”
by Dr. Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology, Brown University
Friday, April 4, 2008 at 7:00 pm (Central Time)
Reception and activities 5:45 pm, come early and see the exhibits!
Welch Hall (WEL) Rm. 2.224

DESCRIPTION: It has been 80 years since the Scopes Monkey Trial, but the debate between science and religion has never been as heated as it is now. Recent efforts to introduce “intelligent design” into science classes will likely lead to a major Supreme Court ruling on the issue. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, is a preeminent evolutionary scientist and the author of the most widely used high school biology textbook in America. He is perfectly suited to address this controversial topic on many fronts. More details can be found here.

SCHEDULE: Friday, April 4, 2008
5:45-6:45 pm: Interactive exhibits and refreshments, outside Welch 2.224
6:00-6:45 pm: Evolution Workshop, Welch 2.246
7:00-8:15 pm: “God, Darwin, and Design: Lessons from the Dover Monkey Trial”, Welch 2.224

PARKING: Due to construction projects on campus, parking has become limited. Two ways to find parking on the evening of the lecture are:
1. Look for spots close to Welch Hall along 24th St. Check signs posted at each spot to be sure the days/times listed for needing a permit are expired. Do not park in handicapped or loading zones.
2. Reserved spots in the San Jacinto Parking Garage on San Jacinto and 24th St are at a discounted rate. Lecture attendees will be charged $1 for parking, upon exiting the garage, but must have a parking coupon that can be picked up at the lecture. Do not park on the ground floor of the parking garage or you will be ticketed. Go up the ramp and pull a ticket to enter the garage.

For more parking info, please use the map at: http://www.utexas.edu/parking/maps/map.htm

WEBCAST: For those that cannot attend, the lecture will be broadcast live over the Internet at 7:00 pm. We recommend logging into the site 15 minutes before to get set up. For more information about the webcast, see: http://www.esi.utexas.edu/outreach/ols/webcasts.php?vol=53

The lecture series is presented by The University of Texas at Austin’s Environmental Science Institute. This event is sponsored by the Texas Natural Science Center.

I’m given to wonder if, given Miller’s theism, campus Christian groups and local creationists might make themselves a more visible presence than they did at Dawkins’ lecture. In any event, this will be a most interesting evening, and it’s early enough that it still leaves plenty of time for other Friday night plans afterward.

A Christian chimes in on Expelled

It’s always nice to be reminded that not all who call themselves Christian are dishonest anti-science ideologues who use their beliefs to justify their haughty disdain for reality. Henry Neufeld is a self described liberal Methodist who has a few things to say about Expelled, and he nails every reason why the movie gets it all wrong with admirable succinctness. From its confusion over what “free speech” really means, to his unequivocal condemnation of the movie’s most brazen lie — that “Darwinism” led inexorably to Nazism and the Holocaust, when in fact the teaching of Darwin’s theory was banned in both the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia, and Hitler famously credited his own anti-Semitism to a certain invisible guy in the sky — there’s not a single one of Stein and Co.’s reprehensible falsehoods Neufeld doesn’t take down. His most interesting point is one which is liable to raise the hackles of most of Neufeld’s brothers in Christ.

Repeatedly, Ben Stein equates the theory of evolution with atheism, and claims that all ID wants is to open the door to considering that God might have done something. Evolution may be incompatible with certain forms of Biblical interpretation, but it is in no way incompatible with basic theism.

Neufeld’s batted 1000 here. True, Dawkins’ passage from The Blind Watchmaker to the effect that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” is the one often flogged by creos who want to condemn evolution as a tool of the Devil to turn everyone away from Jebus. And the “evolution=atheism” link has been effective in pushing the emotional hot buttons of scientifically illiterate religionists. But, while it’s true that evolution does explain how nature works entirely on its own to effect biodiversity without any “need of that hypothesis,” it’s also true the theory itself is not fundamentally incompatiable with some notions of theism.

The deistic god is one who is said simply to have created the world and then left it alone. So evolution has to be operative under deism. But if the Christian God is supposed to be omnipotent, there’s no reason why he couldn’t have done his business via evolution either. Indeed many liberal Christians have attacked creationism on this very point, that a bunch of stick-up-the-ass fundies are trying to dictate to God how he must have created life, and that it could not have been by evolution. How arrogant! Heh heh.

I, of course, think the concept of God is entirely superfluous, but again, Neufeld’s right in that a basic understanding of the principles of Darwin’s theory does not necessitate atheism. On the other hand, as I read from some commenter elsewhere this morning, the makers of Expelled must be completely clueless doorknobs if they think the Nazi Holocaust is a great argument for the loving God of the Bible!

Thanks, Eugenie!

Following up my post about the Facebook group “Protest Ben Stein’s Expelled”, I got this blush-inducing celebrity endorsement from no less than Eugenie Scott!

Martin Wagner, you have your head on very, very straight.

If we raise a fuss for Expelled, we increase the publicity and the gate. We play directly into their frame.

Why would we want to do that?

Okay, take a minute to chuckle at the visual of me putting on my “aw shucks” face. Anyway, Eugenie goes on to point out that while Expelled is sure to be a huge hit in “church basements,” — har! — the general public isn’t exactly awaiting it with bated breath the way they are, say, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Launching some massive protest campaign against the movie will simply play into their hands by validating their false message that “Big Science” wants to shut down open debate. She goes on to recommend the NCSE’s newly launched site Expelled Exposed. It’s new and fairly spartan at the moment, but it’s been launched both as a one-stop shop for all of the news surrounding the movie’s release and publicity (such as the PZ fiasco), and will go on to be a resource for refuting the false claims in the movie itself. Go on over and bookmark it.

Incidentally, if you’re a member of the Facebook group, you’ll see that one guy who’s responded, one Barrett Cune, is doing a great job making my case for me, by presenting himself as exactly the kind of histrionic assclown we don’t want responding to the movie. In a couple of ALL CAPS harangues, he wails about the need to “hit the streets” and attacks imaginary people who “just want to whine about the Earth and her problems.. you dont actually want to do anything to help.. you want your fucking parents to do it for you.” If old Barrett can’t tell the difference between coming up with ways to counter the movie effectively and productively, and thinking no one wants to do anything simply because we think parading the streets like some kind of I.R.A. rally would backfire, he clearly needs to grow the fuck up. I can understand and sympathize with his passion, but not his immaturity. The idea is that we’re smarter and more rational than the IDiots who do things like make movies comparing scientists to Hitler as a way of concealing the fact they have no science backing up their own position. Acting even stupider than they do is not how to turn the generally indifferent public off to their message.

Picket Expelled? No no no no no!

I just got an invitation in my email to join a Facebook group called “Protest Ben Stein’s Expelled,” which lists PZ Myers as one of two admins. The thrust here is to organize protests in front of theaters wherever it’s playing. I joined right away, mainly so I could stop these folks — whose motivations I am, of course, 200% in sympathy with — from what could be a foolish mistake. I promptly posted a bulletin to the group, which I will reproduce in full below. There’s a right way and a wrong way to oppose a folly like Expelled, and picketing theaters is the wrong way.

I think picketing theaters is a bad idea. Why? Because it will only serve to draw attention to the movie and might make people curious where they were indifferent before. Nothing sells tickets like controversy, and by organizing theater protests, we who oppose this pack of lies may unwittingly help give it more business.

Remember what happened with Passion of the Christ? This was Mel Gibson’s small independent movie, until the Anti-Defamation League began making a big stink in the media about the possibility it might be anti-Semitic, and complaining Gibson would not screen the film for them. The media ran with that, with the result that so many people became fascinated and curious that the movie ended up taking in over $375 million in its theatrical run.

I don’t think we want to make the same mistake in dealing with Expelled.

Instead, how about contacting your local media (newspapers, TV, radio) if the movie’s coming to your town, and offer to either write a guest editorial detailing the specific lies in the movie, as well as the long campaign of dishonesty being used to promote it? Or ask to talk to their staff movie critic, and provide him with correct information to counter the film’s falsehoods that he can then include in his review.

Picketing theaters may even feed into the movie’s false message that “Big Science” and its supporters merely want to shut down dissenting views. When in fact, that’s what the producers of Expelled are doing!

This movie isn’t poised to become some big megahit, people. With the possible exception of an opening-weekend “Church Bus Bubble,” I think theatrical attendance will be minute, and the movie will end up doing the bulk of its business with DVD sales marketed directly to churches. Right now, Expelled is having a PR nightmare surrounding the screening they kicked PZ out of. Let’s keep working that angle, to help the public understand what liars and hypocrites are responsible for this shit. The best thing that could happen would be for the movie to peter out after a week in theaters due to massive public indifference. That won’t happen if we raise a big ruckus and make everyone eager to see it out of curiosity over what the fuss is about.


Addendum: Ames Grawert, who’s listed as the group’s other admin, replied to my bulletin with the following, which gives me a sense of relief.

I think you’re probably right. I’ve heard this critique from a lot of people. I’ll change the description of the group a bit. I like the editorial/education angle a little better.

Very nice. This is a time when cooler heads will prevail. Still, I think this post is relevant, in case there may be any other folks out there considering some kind of overt protest activity on their own.

Hey, Ben Stein! Here’s “Big Science” for you!

Diggers in the fossil-rich wilds of North Dakota have uncovered a whole mummified dinosaur. The ol’ fella is 65 million years old, give or take, and he’s got almost all of his skin, hinting at pretty quick fossilization under extreme conditions. This is a swell find, and it will simply add to the wealth of material available for scientists to study, to glean an understanding of the prehistoric world. We learn new things, sometimes we reject old ideas when they’re no longer valid or useful. But it’s an ongoing process of learning, and it has no time for intractible ideologies.

So while the ID crowd spends its time flogging press releases and quote mining peer reviewed articles or making insipid fakeumentaries about the sinister “Big Science” conspiracy to suppress all the hard research they aren’t actually doing…real scientists are out doing…teh science.

This is the difference between reality, and the warped vision of it that Ben Stein and Casey Luskin and John West and Bill Dembski and the DI seem to think we live in.

Which do you prefer?

Meanwhile, back in reality…

While the Creationist Noise Machine continues annoying the public with its endless mantra of “there’s no evidence for evolution!” and “teach the controversy (that we’ve made up)!”, over in the real world, scientists continue to ignore such nonsense and concentrate on the actual research those people don’t do.

There’s an interesting report today about new discoveries in convergent evolution, where it’s been found that similar mutations in species of Asian monkeys and South American monkeys have led to genes that appear to confer resistance to HIV. The implication is that HIV possibly isn’t a new outbreak, and that similar diseases have afflicted primates in the past. Neat. The article doesn’t say if this research can lead to new, genetic treaments for HIV in humans, but it quite possibly could. You’d have to ask Abbie Smith about that — that’s her line.

Observe. This is exactly the kind of beneficial research that no creo has ever done. The kind of research that would be kicked in the balls if they got their wish of confusing students’ educations by introducing non-scientific ideas like ID into classrooms, shoring it all up with bold proclamations of conspiracy theories declaring scientists are evil thought police trying to control outside-the-box thinkers. Has the Discovery Institute produced any research that points to findings like the ones above, and do they have a way to explain these developments using ID? (And don’t tell me, “No, because teh eebul Darwinistas at the universities won’t let them!” because we all know how independently well funded the IDiots are.)

Of course not, all the ID crowd ever does is glom onto the latest research real scientists have done, then bitch about how it’s all wrong and shows biases against the supernatural and whatnot. As always, the IDiots have nothing to bring to the table, except their Dunning-Kruger-enhanced egos and pitiful need for attention. When it comes to advancing knowledge, they’re left sitting on the sidelines like the sad ugly kid at the school dance.