March 2009

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James Randi with some expensive art
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It appears that the James Randi Educational Foundation have had their YouTube account suspended – no reason is known.

The JREF are an outstanding bulwark against the rise of paranormal and supernatural ideas in society, internationally.  I cannot for the life of me see why this decision can have be made.  The JREF’s mission, as quoted from their website:

The James Randi Educational Foundation is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1996. Its aim is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.

Seems eminently reasonable to me.  You can write letters in protest, though I guess it would help if we knew why the JREF’s account had been suspended.

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New Scientist reports on the mixed outcome of the Texas education board’s vote on the Science curriculum (Texas vote leaves loopholes for teaching creationism), and includes this sparkler from board chairman Don McLeroy:

Anti-evolutionist Don McLeroy, a dentist and chair of the Texas State Board of Education, testified at Friday’s hearing: “I disagree with these experts. Someone has got to stand up to experts.”

It mystifies me why this guy gets to chair this board.  I recently posted on where the dimwit dentist gets his ideas on evolution (Where the creationist chair of the Texas education board gets his information).  Read that and weep for Texas.

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Faithful praying towards Makkah; Umayyad Mosqu...
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There’s been an ongoing campaign by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to prevent “defamation” of Islam through the UN. This was most recently defeated at Durban II. However this fight to protect Islam from criticism carries on. In response to this, many secular groups have called on the UN tp reject the proposal, which would have far-reaching effects on freedom of speech. Reuters reports (U.N. urged to reject bar on defamation of religion) that

Some 200 secular, religious and media groups from around the world on Wednesday urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to reject a call from Islamic countries for a global fight against “defamation of religion.”

The groups, including some Muslim bodies, issued their appeal in a statement on the eve of a vote in the Council in Geneva on a resolution proposed by the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Such a resolution, the statement said, “may be used in certain countries to silence and intimidate human rights activists, religious dissenters and other independent voices,” and to restrict freedom of religion and of speech.

It’s important that this sort of resolution be firmly blocked.  The concept of “defamation of religion” is so under-defined that it will be used to enforce all sorts of restrictions on the rights of free speech, and enable continued use of outdated blasphemy laws in some of the more repessive religiously motivated states.

For those of us resident in the UK, there’s a Number 10 Petition which you can sign if you are concerned.  The petition proposer says:

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a voting block within the United Nations, is currently attempting to use its power within that organisation to seek to have a binding resolution made attempting to force governments to criminalise freedom of expression. In pursuing this course of action it seeks to promote the idea that religion can be defamed and that criticism of religion should be outlawed.

This is a gross violation of the most basic and fundamental of Human Rights, that of freedom of speech. It must be countered by all governments wherever possible and properly identified for what it is, a blatant attempt to stifle debate and criticism of religion. Religions do not have rights, people do. Whilst this is being introduced by Islamic countries it is not specific to the religion of Islam.

The original non-binding resolution can be found on the UN web site

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Diagram representing the divergence of species
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The Dallas News website reports (Split vote upholds Texas education board ruling to ax evolution ‘strengths and weaknesses’ rule) that the creationist threat to science education in Texas may have been averted.

A last-ditch effort by social conservatives to require that Texas teachers cover the “weaknesses” in the theory of evolution in science classes was rejected by the State Board of Education Thursday in a split vote.

Board members deadlocked 7-7 on a motion to restore a long-time curriculum rule that “strengths and weaknesses” of all scientific theories – notably Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – be taught in science classes and covered in textbooks for those subjects.

If true, this means that Don McLeroy’s manipulations may have been thwarted.  Celebration may be premature, as a final vote will be held on Friday (but the news report indicates it’s unlikely to change).

Update: Associated Press reports that

“Publishers are waiting to hear what to put in their textbooks,” said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network.

In approving a handful of amendments Thursday, the board “slammed the door on creationism, then ran around the house opening up all the windows to let it in another way,” Quinn said. “We hope the vote tomorrow will reverse a lot of that.”

In one amendment, the board agreed to require high school biology students to “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell.”

Board member Don McLeroy said his amendment was intended “to account for that amazing complexity. I think it’s a standard that makes it honest with our children.”

So perhaps Devious Don will get his own way after all…

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Evolution education in Texas
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Dentist Don McLeroy is the chair of the Texas Board of Education, and is actively seeking to ensure that religious creationist claptrap is included in the state’s science curriculum. Actually, to be precise, the creationism he espouses will be Christian creationism rather than the myriad of creation myths devised by primitive cultures over the aeons.

He’s now published an opinion piece (McLeroy: Enlisting in the culture war), which I think illustrates his peculiar flat-Earth world-view.  McLeroy concocts a bizarre scenario in which he says the greatest threat to establishing high standards in education is a culture war over evolution.  What’s even more dumbfounding is that he constructs a bizarre conspiracy theory in which he claims a “cultural war” between science and faith is generated and stoked by “the rejection of the empirical demonstration of science by academia’s far-left and the secular elite opinionmakers”.  This is such an astounding inversion of reality that it almost defies belief.

The controversy exists because evolutionists, led by academia’s far-left, along with the secular elite opinion-makers, have decreed that questioning of evolution is not allowed, that it is only an attempt to inject religion or creationism into the classroom. Even Texas’ 20-year-old requirement to teach the scientific strengths and weaknesses of hypotheses and theories has come under attack. Words that were uncontroversial and perfectly acceptable for nearly two decades are now considered “code words” for intelligent design and are deemed unscientific. The elite fear that “unscientific” weaknesses of evolution will be inserted into the textbooks, leaving students without a good science education and unprepared for the future, compelling businesses to shun “illiterate” Texas.

Actually the issue here is not that there is some shadowy far-left academic conspiracy, rather it is one of teaching science in science classes.  And the conspiracy comes from dimwits like McLeroy forcing a religious agenda where it should not be.  Will McLeroy come clean on which religious creation myths have a place in his ideal Texas science classes?  Just christian?  Or maybe the original American creation myths ought to get look in – perhaps those of the Apache?  Or maybe those of the Indian sub-continent.  But wait, why not Viking myths?  Just because they are pretty much dead doesn’t make them any less valid than those of christianity, surely?

McLeroy writes substantial quantities of rubbish.  He needs to learn some science, particularly what constitutes evidence. He has inadequate scientfic background to understand evolutionary theory (one wonders what background in education delivery he has, that someone thought fit to appoint him to chair the Education Board).  In any case, he shoots himself in the foot, when he points out that

Texas’ standards define science as “the use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomenon as well as the knowledge generated through this process.”

By that definition, creationism can not be taught in science classes: it is entirely untestable, and makes not predictions that may be evaluated by experimentation.  In contrast, Evolutionary theory makes testable predictions, and in every case scientific investigation yields supporting evidence.  Perhaps McLeroy should put down his religious texts, and read more widely – Jerry Coyne’s recent book Why Evolution is True” might be a good place to start.  But wait! McLeroy winds up his article with a bizarre claim that

If we are to train our students, engage their minds and, frankly, be honest with them, why oppose these standards? [I think he's referring to the standard of testability above] If the standards do not promote religion and they are not unscientific and they deal directly with the data, then possibly these standards are being opposed for ideological reasons. This supports the argument that this culture war exists, not because of the religious faith of creationists, but because of the rejection of the empirical demonstration of science by academia’s far-left and the secular elite opinionmakers.

An oddly lop-sided world-view indeed – his last sentence is extraordinary – and it reveals him as a bizarre conspiracy theorist for whom illogical topsy-turvy argument holds sway.  But given where he gets his ideas from (Where the creationist chair of the Texas education board gets his information), perhaps we can see where he gets his bizarre conspiracies.  How did this guy get to chair the Texas Education Board?

UPDATE: There is an interesting and very informative dissection of McLeroy’s selective quote-mining at Collapse of a Texas “Quote Mine”, which presents quite damning evidence of selective quotation out of context (and in direct contradiction of the context from which the quotation was drawn), with suggestions of plagiarism.

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You may recall the recent furore that enveloped the University of Oklahoma’s invitation to Richard Dawkins to deliver a lecture (see my article Richard Dawkins visits the University of Oklahoma). You can read the original Legislature motions here (Oklahoma legislator proposes resolution to condemn Richard Dawkins).

Now it seems, the Oklahoma Legistature is attempting to get at the University for having the temerity to go ahead with Dawkins lecture (Greg Lukianoff at the Huffington Post -Oklahoma Legislature Investigates Richard Dawkins’ Free Speech).

Sure enough, I just received confirmation today in a letter from the Open Records Office at the University of Oklahoma. The letter confirms that on the day of Dawkins’ speech, Oklahoma State Representative Rebecca Hamilton requested substantial information relating to the speech from Vice President for Governmental Relations Danny Hilliard. Representative Hamilton’s exhaustive request included demands for all e-mails and correspondence relating to the speech; a list of all money paid to Dawkins and the entities, public or private, responsible for this funding; and the total cost to the university, including, among other things, security fees, advertising, and even “faculty time spent promoting this event.”

Rick Farmer, the director of committee staff for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, also wrote the University on March 12, requesting confirmation that Dawkins had indeed waived all compensation for the speech.

I can’t think what the purpose of this request is, other than to continue the harassment started before Dawkins’ engagement to speak was fulfilled.  It strikes me that it’s an attempted suppression of academic independence, and it has to be motivated byt the personal beliefs (in mediaeval mumbo-jumbo) of members of the Oklahoma Legislature. Shame on them.

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Pity poor  Ken Ham of the awful answersingenesis.org.  The poor old chap claims  his astrophysicist colleague Dr Jason Lisle was ambushed by BBC Radio, who had requested an interview with him (BBC Radio and Ambush Journalism).

That’s why it was not too surprising that when Dr. Lisle went on the air to be interviewed by the BBC, he quickly found out the BBC had not told us the truth—it turned out to be an attempted ambush—not an interview (as we had been led to believe), but a creation/evolution debate. On the other line was perhaps America’s best-known evolutionist defender, Dr. Eugenie Scott, whose organization has as its sole purpose to counter creationist efforts wherever they can and to uphold evolution. Of course, the BBC didn’t happen to tell us that it was to be a debate, and they didn’t happen to tell us there would be a debate opponent, and they didn’t happen to tell us who the debate opponent would be! Actually, the BBC has done this before—it happened to me a couple of years ago!

Of course, the most probable reason for this is that the good old BBC makes strong efforts to present both sides of an argument – you hear this every day in Radio 4 on the Today programme, so it’s hardly an ambush, for goodness’ sake!  I must try and track down this interview, unfortunately Ham doesn’t reveal what the programme was, so that might be a little difficult.

Later in this blog article, Ham refers to the video debate between Purdom and Shermer (see my article Scary interview with a creationist):

Dr. Purdom does extremely well in dealing with this well-known atheist debater. However, note also the name calling in many of the responses!! Sadly, that is typical of many of those today who oppose creationists.

I have to say that I missed name calling in the interview – I was actually surprised at how Shermer kept his cool despite all the astonishingly stupid things Purdom said.  However.

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The Argus reports (Teachers banned from promoting creationism) that it is unacceptable for school teachers to promote creationism in science classes in West Sussex.

Councillor Peter Griffiths, cabinet member for education and schools, was asked at a full meeting fo the council: “What is the policy of the County Council [West Sussex County Council[ towards teachers in its employment who promote creationism and/or intelligent design rather than Darwin's theory of natural selection?”

Coun Griffiths said: “It is acceptable to answer questions about creationism in science but not promote it.”

This is an appropriate position - if kids ask about creationism they can be directed to Religious Education classes, but there's no place in science lessons to discuss mediaeval mumbo-jumbo as a credible alternative to evolutionary biology.  Perhaps the West Sussex councillors can talk to their colleagues in Hampshire?

Glancing at the comments to that article, I see the usual canards creeping out about the supposed lack of evidence for evolution, and the strategy of claiming this is action against Christians by those who fear to take on Muslims (presumably the author of that comment is ignorant of the antics of Adnan Oktar and his Islamic creationist brigade!).   Commenters critical of the council's view are however outnumbered by more rational types.

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Recent reports indicated that schools in Hampshire were receiving inappropriate guidance regarding the teaching of religious belief, principally creationism, within science classes (BBC News – Schools get advice on creationism).  It appears a rethink has taken place judging from a report in ThisIsHampshire.net (Councillors agree to keep Creationism out of science lessons in Southampton).

SOUTHAMPTON councillors have agreed that God should be kept out of the science classroom.

They backed a motion demanding science and religion should continue to be taught separately.

It comes as 70 Hampshire secondary schools have been issued advice on how to teach 11 to 14-year-olds creationism alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Unfortunately, it sounds as though this merely reflects an oasis of rationality within the county – one hopes this will extend beyond Southampton.  Educators should be clearly informed about this – There is no place for religiously-motivated medieval claptrap in Science classes.

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Ed Yong has a nice discussion of a recent paper about a feathered dinosaur over at his blog (Not Exactly Rocket Science -Tianyulong – a fuzzy dinosaur that makes the origin of feathers fuzzier).  The neat thing with this fossil is that it suggests that the evolution of feathers might have been a stepwise process, and indeed their origins may have predated the the last common ancestor of the Saurischian and Ornithiscian dinosaurs (see figure below).

Distribution of feathers among dinosaur taxa

Distribution of feather-like structures among dinosaur taxa

One more example of how we are gradually accumulating more and more supporting evidence for evolutionary explanations of the origins of birds.  You can clearly see the feathery “filamentous integumentary structures” in the fossil: Read the rest of this entry »

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