Help teachers!

The scienceblogs crew is pushing a new charity for the next few weeks: an outfit called DonorsChoose, which collects funding requests from teachers and tries to match them up with people willing to pass along a few dollars. They have a long, long list of teachers looking for help in their classrooms; what we sciencebloggers have done is picked a subset of the requests that each of us like and grouped them into a challenge. My challenge contains a dozen science-related requests, and now my job is to beg you, the readers of Pharyngula, to take a look at them and if you can, kick in a few dollars to help them out.

If you look to the sidebar on the left, you’ll see a status bar showing how close we are to funding those requests. It’s at a pathetic 0% right now, but it would be nice to see it fill up.

I said that a lot of us here at scienceblogs are doing this; Janet has a complete list, so if you’d rather help out one of the other blogs meet their goal, please do. All that matters is that teachers get help, not which of us helps out.

Also, there will be a random drawing at the end of our efforts, and donors have a chance of winning various small tchotchkes. Again, Janet has the details, including the list of fabulous prizes.

Science swirling down the drain

Lots of stuff about the intersection of science and politics in the US today—here are three things to read over breakfast.

  • Bruce Sterling suggests that American science is experiencing creeping Lysenkoism, and reports that “the Bush administration has systematically manipulated scientific inquiry into climate change, forest management, lead and mercury contamination, and a host of other issues.” He predicts a rather grim end for our science and science policy.

    Before long, the damage will spread beyond our borders. International scientific bodies will treat American scientists as pariahs. This process has already begun in bioethics, meteorology, agriculture, nuclear science, and medicine, but doubts will spread to “American science” generally.

    It’s not a happy piece. Read it anyway.

  • Chris Mooney is surprised at the longevity of the critiques of Republican “science”: he says that “a similar pattern–ignore experts, favor ideologues–has been followed by the administration on any number of other science issues, ranging from global warming to the morning after pill,” and seems most impressed by the fact that these problems are being pointed out, over and over again. Where Sterling sees looming disaster, though, Mooney sees some hope: not everyone is blind to what the Bushites are doing, and science policy is becoming an important issue.

    But now I realize something more: These questions are proof positive that those who are worried about the politics of science nurture their concern within a much broader context. These Americans are thinking: As science goes, so goes the nation. On some level, the science community has always known that. What’s new is that now, we have a heck of a lot of company.

    Now we just have to get all that company motivated to campaign and vote.

  • Darksyde discusses an bill to protect scientific whistleblowers, people who come forward to politicized, ideological tampering with the science coming out of our premier federal research institutions, like NOAA. As he says, “Once again, the GOP preferred to ignore reality and opt for wishful thinking”: it was killed by the Republicans. The author of the bill, Rep. Brad Miller, (D-North Carolina), was online responding to comments, if you’d like to hear straight from the source.

    I think Mooney is right, that the public can see the damage being done to our reputation and the erosion of America’s science and engineering skill set, but there’s the obstacle—as long as the Republicans are in power, we’re not going to be able to slow the destruction.

Coulter’s Godless: as bad as you knew it would be

A reader (who will be nameless, unless he wants to confess in the comments) sent me a chunk of Coulter’s book, Godless. It’s worse than I feared. It contains the usual stock creationist crap presented at a rapid pace, full of the usual bald assertions of outright lies, intentional misinterpretations, and lots and lots of quote mining. Seriously, it looks like every paragraph contains multiple falsehoods or screwy manglings of science.

She claims Darwin’s theory is “one step above Scientology in scientific rigor“, that it is a “tautology“, that there is “no proof in the scientist’s laboratory or the fossil record“, and the only reason it’s still around is that “liberals think evolution disproves God.”

That’s all in the first paragraph of chapter 8, which focuses on evolution. Go ahead and follow the links up there; each one is to a short, simple refutation of Coulter’s claim.

Now picture a whole 27 page chapter packed with the same nonsense. I could do a sentence by sentence dissection of this abomination, but I’d have to write nothing but Coulter exposés for the next month. Forgive me if I pass on that.

Not only is it wrong through and through, but Coulter is a plagiarist. This is the book that William Dembski thinks “will propel [their] issues in the public consciousness like nothing to date“—well, yeah. Let’s propel the idea that creationists are dishonest and stupid right into everyone’s consciousness.

I just saw Coulter and Carlin on the Tonight show. Carlin was bland and harmless; there was no confrontation. Coulter was contemptibly smug, and Leno was a wimp who tossed off a few lazy questions and let her slide by. Of course he didn’t bother to mention the gross factual inaccuracies in her book.

She also clearly had an audience of fans there. They ate up every sneer and lie. No one is going to call her on them.

It’s a boob-tube night

Leading in to the Carlin-Coulter cage match on Leno tonight, we’ve also got Phil Plait on the SciFi Channel. It should be a cheerful evening, since he’s discussing the end of the world.

I’m watching it now, and I will say that Phil is adorable…but the show is awfully cheesy, sprinkled with clips from science fiction movies and treating nuclear terrorism with the same seriousness as the possibility that the robots might revolt and enslave us, or aliens might land and start disintegrating people. And, as an indicator of their concern for detail, they keep spelling Paul Ehrlich’s name as “Paul Ehlrich.”

No quarter. Don’t ask.

Lots of people have been telling me to ignore Ann Coulter: that she says outrageous things to get attention, that addressing her antics is exactly what she wants, that the best thing to do is to starve her of the publicity. I sympathize, I really do. It’s giving her and her kind far too much credit.

However, I’ve been hearing the same argument applied to creationists for about 25 years. “Ignore them and they’ll go away,” or “Serious scientists don’t pay attention to the lunatic fringe,” they say. We tend our little gardens, and we don’t worry about what the crackpot next door is growing in his. But hey, have you noticed something?

Neglect doesn’t work.

Here’s a counterargument: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil
is for good men to do nothing.” I’ve watched good people do nothing about creeping lunacy and anti-intellectualism for decades. I watched appalled when that senile fool Reagan was elected. I was even more appalled when George W. Bush, airhead extraordinaire and utterly unqualified ignoramus, became president. The citizenry howls to destroy the science standards in our public schools, or complacently votes to lower property taxes at the expense of our children’s minds. While we’ve quietly raised a rich crop in scattered little plots, we are about to be overwhelmed by the nightmarish weeds that overrun our neighbors’. We must stand up and shout, finally…and hope it’s not too late.

Now that doesn’t mean I’d give even a penny to Coulter for her hackwork. It doesn’t mean I would dignify her position by standing together in public with her. What it does mean is that at least some of us are obligated to stand against the tide of garbage and fight it. We have to be loud and we have to be vocal and we can’t afford to just shrug our shoulders and let it all pass. If we accept the idea that we’re wasting our time criticizing patent idiots, then we might as well retire silently with folded hands and let the liars and scoundrels and frauds and kooks continue their campaigns unhindered. It’s really worked well for us so far, hasn’t it?

And for those who think Coulter is a buffoon and clown and opportunist, it doesn’t matter how cynical she is, or whether she believes her own lies. Other people do. You don’t want to take her seriously? Too bad. They do.

The Compleat Coulter: the sum total of her argument against evolution

No, I don’t have Ann Coulter’s book yet (it is so annoying to want something cheap and easily accessible, yet have to refuse to actually pay for it on general principles), but since she’s hammering the talk show circuit heavily, we’re getting dribs and drabs of her amazing knowledge of biology.

John Hawkins: If you were to pick three concepts, facts, or ideas that most undercut the theory of evolution, what would they be?

Ann Coulter: 1. It’s illogical. 2. There’s no physical evidence for it. 3. There’s physical evidence that directly contradicts it. Apart from those three concerns I’d say it’s a pretty solid theory.

1) Darwinian logic is quite simple and clear. Here’s a short summary:

  • If heritable variation exists, (which, of course, it does)
  • if excess reproduction occurs, (also obviously true, or we’d be up to our ears in mice)
  • if variants differ in their likelihood of survival and reproduction, (a little trickier, but still fairly obvious)
  • then the relative frequencies of the variants must change.

There’s also the greater point that evolution, not just Darwinian selection, was derived entirely from observation and experiment. There’s a kind of empirical logic running throughout it.

Note that Coulter doesn’t say what is illogical about it.

2) The claim that there is no evidence for evolution is both absurd and dishonest. For a short summary of the physical evidence, see 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent (“short”, of course, being a relative term. That page is huge, but it is dwarfed by all the new data pouring in every month in the scientific journals.)

3) The existence of evidence that contradicts evolution is a hard one to address when the critic can’t even bother to specify any. There are lots of instances of creationists claiming to have evidence contradicting evolution, but usually what we get is evidence contradicting their ignorant caricature of evolution. For instance, many argue that the Cambrian explosion is evidence against evolution—of course, it isn’t, but is simply an unusual and interesting phenomenon within the long history of common descent. It’s like saying that the Industrial Revolution is evidence against the facts of European history because it was a period of rapid technological change.

You know, when someone like Coulter has to flaunt their ignorance and lie to defend their thesis, you know there’s something wrong with it.