Saturday, March 21, 2009

Graduates from Texas universities, your degrees are about to become worthless

State Rep. Leo Berman was outraged, Outraged! that The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) was not able to grant Master of Science degrees.
“I don’t believe I came from a salamander that crawled out of a swamp millions of years ago,” Berman told "I do believe in creationism. I do believe there are gaps in evolution.

So he did something about it. Meet House Bill 2800, which will allow all non-profit educational institutions to be exempt from the authority of Texas' Higher Education Coordinating Board. The board authorizes institutions of higher education the ability to grant degrees. It is how we know the young job applicant with a degree from University of Texas, or Baylor, or a small community college near Houston, actually learned something.

Even though the bill is in response to the plight of ICR it is not specific to IRC.
Which could create even bigger problems for the state than just being a laughing stock, and the state of choice for students wishing to pursue an advanced degree in creationism.
“This would open the door to other fly-by-night organizations that come in and want to award degrees in our state, because the bill is highly generalized,” said Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science.

“Right now, we don’t have this problem in Texas. Texas is not a center for degree mills, because our laws allow only the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to approve the granting of graduate degrees.”

“It would certainly open the door to all kinds of chicanery,” says Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. “I mean, all you have to do, it looks to me from the bill, is start a non-profit organization, don’t take any federal or state money, and then offer degrees in any fool subject you want.”

Monday, March 16, 2009

Monday Night Music Break with Old Crow Medicine Show

Artist: Old Crow Medicine Show
Title: Wagon Wheel

State science advocacy organizations

Our friendly neighborhood developmental biologist over at Pharyngula is compiling a list of state level grassroots organizations working to improve science education in their states. Pennsylvania Citizens for Science is on the list, although it unfortunately does not seem all too active.

I'll also post a complete list at some point, but for now I'm going to hang back and let him do all the work.

Teaching science with science

An article in the Hunterdon Review (New Jersey) reports on some lucky third graders who during January and February
participated in a special science and astronomy program called Wonders of the Universe in which they took part in a number of unusual lessons and activities such as comet making, rocket making and launching, and observing the day and night skies through high powered telescopes.

The program is through a company called the Pearl Observatory and provides schools an opportunity to bring real science into science class. It is unfortunate, but all too often science class is far removed from actual science. Programs like this not only help students better understand what "doing science" means, but also can go a long way to getting students excited about science.
“Each morning, [my students] entered the classroom and looked at the schedule,” said third grade teacher Jaime Levy. “If ‘Visiting Scientist’ was on the schedule, I heard cheers. If it was not, I got questioned, ‘Why isn't John coming today?’ They especially loved picking his brain with all of their questions.”

Creationism in education

I recently came across a website called Education News. It seems to be, as the name would imply, a site dedicated to news and information about education. I haven't really explored it too much, but on the surface it seems pretty good. Just a big repository for news about education, both K-12 and higher ed. Unfortunately I was on the site for about 30 seconds when I noticed a column titled "No one is really talking about any weaknesses in evolution."

Even more unfortunately, it is exactly what it sounds like, creationist propaganda. It is written by a "guest columnist" named David Shormann.

Shormann begins his column with:
In March, the State Board of Education will vote on amendments to the new Texas high school biology teaching standards. Please contact your State Board of Education (SBOE) representative and encourage them to unanimously approve of teaching strengths and weaknesses regarding all scientific theories, particularly evolution.

Oh no. I should have stopped there, but I continued:

Consider for example a female sockeye salmon in Alaska's Copper River. Let's say she lays 3,000 eggs, and all of them hatch. Now, to keep the population stable, only two of those eggs need to mature to adults and return, which means 2,998 of them will probably not make the return journey and produce offspring. Some will get eaten by birds, others by bears, or maybe even a salmon shark. Some will get smashed against rocks, others may starve. Only two are likely to survive to journey from their birthplace to the sea, then venture thousands of miles, before returning to their birthplace.
Now, do you really think the two salmon that survived to adulthood did so because they were clearly the best suited for the environment? Perhaps, but in reality, there is only a 1 in 3000 chance the salmon with the best set of genes survived to adulthood. And the likelihood gets smaller when you consider redfish, which can lay over one million eggs each season.

Okay. Wow. Where to start with that? It appears Dr. Shormann does not consider the possibility that perhaps some of the 3000 young salmon that starved to death did not have the best ability to find food, or that some of the ones that survived predators may have been a little faster than some of their kin which did not, or that just maybe a few of those young salmon who met their untimely fate by getting smashed against rocks were not as strong of swimmers as those that did not.

I say it appears Dr. Shormann did not consider any of these possibilities because he finishes with
Genes mutate, resulting in differences in parents and offspring. However, the low probability of mutation and selection working together to produce fitter populations is a weakness of natural selection theory, and Texas high school biology textbooks should explain such weaknesses.

I am not going to go into a complete take down of his argument here, because the presence of this column is not my big problem here. After I read the column I of course looked at the comments. allows commenters to rate the article with 1 to 5 stars. I am assuming the visitors to this site are mostly professional educators, which is why I found it so disturbing to see so many 5 star comments singing the praises of the article. In fairness, there are many one star comments that are excellent rebuttals to the article, but on a site dedicated to education and educators there are far too many responses that sympathize with the columnist. This is a problem. Far too many professional K-12 teachers (unfortunately including science teachers) are either outright creationists or simply don't understand evolution.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Good Day for Science

President Obama signs executive order lifting ban on funding for stem cell research.

You really should listen to or read the whole statement. It is an eloquent and unapologetic defense of scientific research.

At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated. But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions. To regenerate a severed spinal cord and lift someone from a wheelchair. To spur insulin production and spare a child from a lifetime of needles. To treat Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease and others that affect millions of Americans and the people who love them.

But that potential will not reveal itself on its own. Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research – from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit – and from a government willing to support that work. From life-saving vaccines, to pioneering cancer treatments, to the sequencing of the human genome – that is the story of scientific progress in America. When government fails to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues go unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work. And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation responds:
Today is a new day. I could not be more thrilled to see President Obama live up to his commitment to get politics out of science. We have seen, for the past eight years, how much damage the opposite approach has done to science and patients. Now that the President has taken this critical action, I am excited by the prospect of American scientists carrying human embryonic stem cell research forward toward better treatments and cures that will affect countless millions of lives.

I commend the President for recognizing the inherent value of scientific freedom, and for helping to create an environment in which it can flourish.

The ALS Association responds:
President Barack Obama’s decision today to lift restrictions that have limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research will significantly aid the search for the causes and cure of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ... The ALS Association believes that stem cell research is a rapidly-evolving field that holds the potential to provide benefit to people with ALS in the future. The continuing pursuit of stem cell research with appropriate scientific review and ethical guidelines directly furthers the mission of The ALS Association in finding a cure for and improving living with ALS.

Nancy Reagan responds:
Countless people, suffering from many different diseases, stand to benefit from the answers stem cell research can provide. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases — and soon. As I’ve said before, time is short, and life is precious.

Thank you President Obama, for once again fixing something that should not have been broken.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

More Craziness in Oklahoma

As a college undergraduate I had the opportunity to see people such as Ralph Nader, George Tenet, Colin Powell, Frank Serpico, and Henry Rollins speak on my campus. Obviously I do not agree with every view point expressed by each of these individuals, but they all offered an amazing educational experience beyond anything I could have received in the classroom. I feel privileged to have heard each of these individuals speak. I would have been enraged if a state politician had tried to prevent the university from allowing any one of these people from speaking.

So a few days ago when I found out a state legislator from Oklahoma introduced a bill denouncing Richard Dawkins and encouraging the University of Oklahoma to prevent him from speaking, I felt some sympathy for all the reasonable, rational, people in the state.

You see, University of Oklahoma managed to get Dawkins to come speak there as part of their Darwin 2009 Project. Richard Dawkins is a world renowned evolutionist and one of the great popularizers of science. Anyone should feel privileged to have the chance to hear him speak. State Representative Thomsen (R-Creationistland) feels other wise, and decided the best way to express his personal opinion would be through an official House resolution (I may have chosen to call and bitch to a friend).

HR1015 was introduced by Thomsen on March 3, 2009. You can click the link if you think you can stomach it, if not here is a highlight:
WHEREAS, the invitation for Richard Dawkins to speak on the campus of the University of Oklahoma on Friday, March 6, 2009, will only serve to present a biased philosophy on the theory of evolution to the exclusion of all other divergent considerations rather than teaching a scientific concept.


THAT the Oklahoma House of Representative strongly opposes the invitation to speak on the campus of the University of Oklahoma to Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, whose published statements on the theory of evolution and opinion about those who do not believe in the theory are contrary and offensive to the views and opinions of most citizens of Oklahoma.

It seems though, this was a compromise from his even more terrifying HR1014, introduced on March 2.

The obvious temptation was to mock and ridicule the entire state of Oklahoma. I chose to refrain, however, knowing Rep. Thomsen does not speak for all the people of Oklahoma. In fact, as I said, I felt some sympathy for all the reasonable people of the state.

Of course Dawkins did speak at the university, and much to his credit addressed the whole matter in the way those people should be dealt with, by holding them up to scorn and ridicule.

Notice all those fine, rational Oklahomans laughing at the creationist nonsense.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation has also donated $5,000 to the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. A truly worthy cause.

Kepler Launched

The Delta II rocket carrying the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft lifted off on time at 10:49 p.m. EST from Launch Complex 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

More here.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Kepler to Launch Today

NASA's planet-hunting space telescope Kepler is slated to launch the night of March 6 from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a mission to find Earth-sized planets that could have liquid water at the surface and potentially harbor life.

How cool is the phrase "planet-hunting space telescope"?

More here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

American Scientists removed from endangered species list

For the past eight years, the noble American Scientist has teetered on the brink of total extinction. Over-hunted by religious groups and faced with continued encroachment upon their natural habitat from local school boards, American Scientists retreated to a last few protected ecosystems at a handful of research universities.
Personally I think it may be too soon.

The Amazing Spiderman teaches physics

YES! This is how you teach physics.

A big thumbs up to the Guardian

The Guardian has just announced a new feature. Four new columnists will be writing a weekly column (one per week, so each will have a monthly column) about science.

The starting line up:

Simon Singh - particle physicist, best selling author, TV producer, and currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Chris French - Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths University of London, Co-ordinator of something called the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, and co-editor of The Skeptic.

Andy Miah - professor of ethics and emerging technologies at University of West Scotland.

PZ Myers
- professor of biology at University of Minnesota, Morris, outspoken atheist, and of course is famous (infamous?) for his blog, Pharyngula, which does an excellent job covering a wide range of topics related to biology, evolution, creationism, religion, and atheism. (Those last two get him all kinds of new friends)

Sounds like a hell of a line up to me. Good job Guardian.

President Obama still fixing things that shouldn't have been broken

From this post at the New York Times blog section comes this sentence:
President Obama today asked federal agencies to consult with wildlife biologists over decisions that may affect threatened or endangered species.

Yes, I also have trouble believing that sentence had to actually be written. Bush, in December 2008 (just killing time until retirement) issued a rule to allow federal agencies to decide if the construction projects they were overseeing put endangered species at risk without consulting with the scientists who might actually know something about the potential environmental impact of the projects.

While Obama has not officially overturned the rule, he has ordered a review
“Until such a review is completed,” Mr. Obama wrote, “I request the heads of all agencies to exercise their discretion, under the new regulation, to follow the prior longstanding consultation and concurrence practices” involving the Fish and Wildlife Services and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Sierra Club approves:
Today's announcement marks the unequivocal return of science to the agencies that govern our fish, wildlife, and natural resources.

The Bush rules would have allowed agencies with little or no wildlife expertise to make decisions that could mean life or death for animals like the polar bear. When it comes to protecting wildlife, we should listen to the scientists who spend their lives studying these animals.

These midnight regulations represented all the disdain for science and political trumping of expertise that characterized the Bush Administration's efforts to dismantle fundamental environmental laws.

Our wildlife are clearly in much better hands now. President Obama is bringing science back into decision-making.

Right on!

A brief, but excellent, history of Intelligent Design

From "A Brief History of Moonbats" by Lou at Crowd Head, Cozy Bed
By this point my son was livid at the dishonesty of the creationists, but there was more to come. At the time of the Edwards decision, a Christian Fundamentalist group called the Foundation for Thought and Ethics had been working on a high school targeted text book, ostensibly about Biology but in reality a Creation Science fakery entitled Biology and Origins. In response to Edwards the text was search/replaced, replacing each instance of “Creationism” with the new moniker “Intelligent Design”, “Creationist” with “design proponent”, and “God” with “Intelligent Designer”. The text got a shiny new title, Of Pandas and People. Unfortunately for Dr. Behe, who wrote the chapter on blood clotting, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics is as incompetent as it is dishonest and this would come to haunt him in federal court eighteen years later.

It is an excellent read and well researched. A must read for everyone interested in evolution, education, and the ID movement.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Monday Night Music Break with Iggy Pop and the Stooges

Artist: Iggy Pop and the Stooges
Title: The Passenger