Poor science standard in Minnesota

Our state science standards are being patched up right now, and while they’re mostly just fine, one sneaky provision is still on the books.

“The student will be able to explain how scientific and technological innovations as well as new evidence can challenge portions of or entire accepted theories and models including but not limited to cell theory, atomic theory, theory of evolution, plate tectonic theory, germ theory of disease and big bang theory.”

It’s the old ‘teach the controversy’ argument. While it seems innocuous, and we actually should teach kids how to address established theories critically, it’s really just a backdoor for teachers who sympathize with creationism to smuggle in instruction in intelligent design creationism. It’s also more difficult than it sounds. Even this article, which is sympathetic to good science education, gets the idea wrong. Here’s an example given of a ‘challenge’ to evolutionary theory.

The National Geographic article reports that the fossil, called Ardi, challenges portions of the theory of evolution that say the missing link between humans and apes would look something like a chimpanzee. For example, Ardi is changing our way of thinking about how hominids moved about. Its big toe splays out from the foot to better to grasp tree limbs. However, its foot contains an extra bone that keeps the toe rigid to help the hominid walk bipedally on the ground. The extra bone is not found in the lineages of chimps and gorillas. Also, the upper pelvis is “positioned so that Ardi could walk on two legs without lurching from side to side like a chimp,” researchers say, while the lower pelvis was built like an ape’s to accommodate huge hind limb muscles used in climbing.

No, no, no, no, no. There is absolutely nothing in the discovery of Ardipithecus that challenges any portion of the theory of evolution. It’s an observation of a historical quirk, a detail of the pattern of changes in one lineage. It’s the equivalent of finding an apple tree, watching the fruit fall, and noticing that one apple bounced left, and another bounced to the right — if you’re really, really interested in the distribution of apple bounces (in the way we’re personally interested in human evolution), it may be interesting…but it does not in any way challenge Newton’s laws of gravity.

See the problem? A lot of people misunderstand the concept of a theory; we’re going to get a crop of teachers who don’t know what they’re talking about who will intentionally try to sow doubt in students’ minds by putting forward claims that miscellaneous facts challenge evolutionary theory when they do no such thing.

The only way this standard could be at all useful is if the teacher actually understands deeply that the theories listed can not be currently challenged, except by inventing weird science-fictional ideas that are unsupported by evidence…like intelligent design creationism. I can think of observations that would contradict evolution, easy, but guess what? There are no alternatives, and the creationists certainly have not provided any evidence against evolution.

If it’s Wednesday, it must be Stanford

Oy, that Myers guy is babbling in California again. Tonight at 7pm, I’ll be in Main Quad Building 420 (Jordan Hall), room 041, at Stanford. Two more days. I’ll make it.


Many people have asked where I’ll be tomorrow. Again at 7pm, look for me in Weaver 110 on the Sierra College campus.

Don’t look for me on the day after, though. I’ll be slumped in a plane, on my way back to spending a delightful 12 hours or so in Minneapolis.

Joe Basel’s behavior is not my fault

Yeesh. This is not how we want our university to be known. One of our former students, Joe Basel, is accused of being an accomplice in a break-in to wiretap a senator’s office. I knew him slightly, but he never took a course from me. He claims he was “pushed” into conservative activism by our liberal campus, which is complete nonsense: the campus isn’t that liberal at all, as most of our students are from rural communities, and in my few encounters with Basel I found him to be a conservative lout from the very beginning. I know he wrote about me a few times in the awful conservative rag he founded on our campus (I briefly mentioned a few of my encounters, but since the paper is now dead and its online archives gone, I can’t find the specific stuff he wrote anymore).

He has set a fine example for conservative Republican students everywhere, though. I expect he’ll be lauded by Fox News.

Still not shutting up

I seem to be leaving a trail of noisy wreckage behind me as I cruise through California. You can read one account of my talk at Davis in their local paper — I sound very ferocious in the description — and my evening in Chico was recorded. That one was a little different; we just gathered for beer and pizza, and then we sat around and people asked questions, so it was more of a casual Q&A.

I’ll be heading out shortly to talk some more. I think my voice is getting a little huskier after all this…it must hold out for another week and a half!

Now I’m winning polls where I don’t even try

There was another poll out there that I studiously ignored, because I was on it: Which miracle do you think Americans would most support? One of the possible answers was “PZ Myers publicly converts from atheism to follow the One True God.”

I think it was a very poor choice, because one of the ways that could happen, which would require no miracle at all, is brain damage. Alas, I have won. Now I have to be a little concerned that devout Christians will be after me with a baseball bat.

So here’s an important caveat: traumatic brain injury or organic deterioration do not count. You’re going to have to convert me with reason, logic, and evidence in order for my conversion to count as a miracle. And trust me, since Christians don’t have any of those, it really would be a miracle.

Oh, wait. Is the One True God the Flying Spaghetti Monster, though? There’s a chance there.

Why are godless nerds under-represented in prison populations?

Because prisons ban Dungeons & Dragons.

Prison officials instigated the Dungeons & Dragons ban among concerns that playing the game promoted gang-related activity and was a threat to security.

Yeah, it might inspire them to carve a magic wand out of a bar of soap, and pew-pew prison guards with magic missiles.

Hey, can we get prisons to ban religion because it similarly promotes fantasy thinking and organizes people into groups, aka “gangs”? Bible study could be a gateway to organized crime, you know.

“I support the freedom to marry for all”

Hey, California, you could learn something from Virginia’s bad example. Let’s all hope the California Supreme Court can do something right.

People of West Central Minnesota who might be reading this: I’ve heard from Roy Zimmerman that we could get him to swing by Morris ’round about 3 April. I’m in the awkward state of being on sabbatical and also doing a lot of traveling, so it’s difficult for me to arrange a performance, but I can take a shot at it. Is there any interest out there? Write to me and I’ll work on it, and maybe draft you to help.

All is well!

For everyone writing to me concerned about the status of the stranded Trophy Wife™: she’s fine. She was going to be stuck in a gas station in Hancock, Minnesota for a night, and a local minister stepped up and offered her a place to stay…and when the weather cleared a bit, helped her get back home to Morris. So she has survived the storm, is doing fine, and is even going to work today.

If it’s Tuesday, it must be Sacramento City College

I’ll be speaking tonight at 7 in the Student Union of Sacramento City College.

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Holy crap, they’re charging admission. Maybe no one will show up now…unless I add extra value to my performance. Strip tease? Singing the Narwhal song? My imitations of celebrity creationists (warning: they all involve drooling)? Oh, man, where can I get a puppet, some KY, and a rabid wolverine at such short notice?