Bones, Rocks and Stars

How do we know how old things are? That’s a straightforward and very scientific question, and exactly the kind of thing students ought to ask; it’s also the kind of question that has been muddled up by lots of bad information (blame the creationists), and can be difficult for a teacher to answer. There are a great many dating methods, and you may need to be a specialist to understand many of them…and heck, I’m a biologist, not a geologist or physicist. I’ve sort of vaguely understood the principles of measuring isotope ratios, but try to pin me down on all the details and I’d have to scurry off and dig through a pile of books.

I understand it better now, though. I’ve been reading Bones, Rocks and Stars : The Science of When Things Happened(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) by Chris Turney.

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Al Gore is looking awfully good right now. Josh Marshall thinks he has a shot at the presidency; Blog of the Moderate Left has an interesting ranking of potential candidates, and while he puts Gore at #5, he says this:

Last time around, I said, “I just don’t see Al running, and I really don’t see Al winning.” I think both of those statements may be wrong. He’s pure on the left, he’s got a film about global warming in the hopper, he seems to have found his passion for the issues again. Like Nixon in ’68, he’s tanned, he’s rested, he’s ready. And he’s the best-situated candidate to play Anti-Hillary in 2008. The only question is if he’ll run. So far he says no—but nobody will hold it against him if in, say, January of 2008, he tells us he feels he must run…for America.

I unreservedly cast my vote for Gore last time he ran (although I had a great many reservations about Lieberman), and I’d do it again. I’ve just seen the trailer for his new movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and guess what? I got a fever. And the only prescription…is more Al Gore. A president who actually cares about science, and pays attention to good science? Sign me up.

Anti-science ain’t just on the Right

Here’s a controversial topic to discuss, especially for a science blogger.

Science is overrated. This is my contention.

Last night in chat I evidently hit a nerve by (perhaps not so) casually suggesting that maybe it’s not the end of the world that fewer and fewer American students are going into the sciences.

I read that first bit, and you may be shocked to learn that I’m willing to agree. There are some really good arguments to support the position. Science is hard, and it’s true that the majority of people aren’t going to be able to grasp it. We’re oversubscribed and overextended right now, too: more students are going through the science mill than can ever acquire jobs doing science. If every PI is taking on one new graduate student and one new postdoc every year over a career spanning 30-40 years…well, that’s a situation that is rather ruthlessly Malthusian. It is definitely not a practical career, either—the excessively long training period and relatively low salaries mean that, in a purely economic sense, it would be more profitable to plunge into a blue-collar job straight out of high school. It’s also not as if science is the only rewarding career of value out there, and no other work can possibly be as satisfying or productive. My own kids are all going on into non-science careers, and I say, good for them.

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How can you tell a creationist is lying?

Phillip E. Johnson says, “his intent never was to use public school education as the forum for his ideas [Intelligent Design creationism].” Wesley Elsberry has a flock of quotes direct from Johnson that refute that.

If it were someone other than Johnson, I’d say he was just lying…but he’s old, he’s had a serious stroke, so it’s entirely possible he’s merely senile or brain-damaged. No matter what, though, it means you can’t trust Phillip E. Johnson to speak the truth.

Please try not to be ‘nice’ to everyone

That nice guy Chris Clarke has written a paean to speaking one’s mind. It’s wonderfully not-nice.

My point: it is not civil to discuss things quietly and collegially while people are dying because they can’t afford medicine. It is not civil to speak in even, chuckling sardonicism as one beleaguered wild place after another is paved for profit. It is not civil to calmly raise logical arguments against torture, against kidnapping, against using nuclear weapons on civilians to show our resolve.

There’s also a bit in there about “Minnesota Nice liberals.” I should explain that when you first come to Minnesota, you discover that everyone is unflaggingly polite, they smile, they rarely utter a cross word, and even in the most dire situations they struggle to say something positive. It seems admirable at first, but after a while you discover it is a mask covering some of the meanest, most petty, passive-aggressive backbiting you’ll ever experience, as well as a way to justify some seriously screwed up opinions. I have actually heard a Minnesota WWII veteran tell me that Hitler’s Germany was a nice and tidy place, and that maybe he wasn’t all bad.

I’m all for outrage! Especially since lately there have been a few too many commenting whiners who are getting pissy because I think goose-stepping theocrats are evil, or that creationists are idiots, or that politicians who monitor our phone calls are tyrannical scumbags. If you’re complaining because I don’t compromise in damning these people, rather than complaining about what they do, the problem isn’t me: it’s your superficiality.

Teach Intelligent Design dishonestly!

Darksyde takes on the teaching of creationism in Missouri…let’s see if readers here are clever enough to see the dishonesty in this quote.

[Mike] Riddle had been invited to Potosi High and John A. Evans Middle School by Randy Davis, superintendent of the Potosi-RIII school district, and his board to discuss science with science students. During an hour-long presentation, Riddle … prodded the students to question established scientific principals and theories and encouraged them to think about a career in science.

Questioning scientific principles and theories is a good thing, and it’s also good to encourage students to study more science, so what’s the problem? The problem is that the speaker is a representative from Answers in Genesis, the young earth creationist organization, and he’s using the language differently than scientists do. When we say we should teach good science, we mean that there should be an emphasis on evidence and rational interpretation of the work. When AiG says “good science,” they mean a kind of Christian apologetics that cherry-picks data to arrive at a predetermined conclusion, that the Earth is 6000 years old. He isn’t urging students to do science, he wants them to get out there and corrupt a process that contradicts his theology.

This is the new way of creationism: embrace the trappings and the language, which have favorable associations to most people, and use them to advance ideas contrary to good science. It’s creationism in a lab coat.

A reader from Kansas sent in another slogan, prominently displayed on a billboard:


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Simpsons joins the fray


News from The Panda’s Thumb: tonight, The Simpsons is all about the creationist pseudo-controversy, and Lisa gets arrested as an evilutionist. Let’s all tune in!

I was unimpressed. There were a few good barbs thrown at the creationists, but in the end the matter is settled by something trivial (Homer looks like an ape; yet again, the lazy Simpsons trope of the stupid Homer resolves the story), and of course they caved and pandered to the false dignity of the dominant tribal superstition. Eh.