Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge


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April 19, 2004. Congratulations to Gregory Forbes and the Michigan Science Teacher Association! Forbes was named the 2004 Michigan College Science Teacher of the Year by the association. He's a teacher at Grand Rapids Community College. He is also director of education for the Michigan Scientific Evolution Education Initiative, a federally funded program that trains teachers to instruct students on scientific evolution. Forbes is co-founder of the Michigan Citizens for Science, which monitors legislation in Lansing that affects science education in the state. There are "two recurring bills" the group is tracking. One would require those who teach evolution to also teach "intelligent design;" the other would require science books to carry a label that "evolution is an unproven theory."

Forbes also owns Natural Selections Natural History Expeditions Inc., and leads people on international natural history and cultural expeditions.

April 18, 2004. I was encouraged at the following letter to the Boston Globe from Kevin M. Hayes

ALTHOUGH THE Globe has every right to treat a discussion between a New Hampshire State Police of ficer and a so-called psychic as news ("N.H. police consult psychic on Missing Woman," Page B12, April 16), it should think twice before characterizing this as aid. Your reporter states that Carla Baron, a self-professed psychic, has aided numerous police departments in missing persons and homicide cases. It is irresponsible of the Globe to report this uncritically, with no evidence whatsoever, as fact. It is not aid in any sense of the word to give information to police departments allegedly gleaned from psychic sources. This information does nothing to solve the crime or find the missing person. Useless information and guesses are all that she and others like her ever provide.

A quick check of her website shows that she has never actually found a missing person. The closest she comes was a suicide victim who was found in the same area that police had already been looking. There is also no evidence that anyone has ever been convicted of a homicide based on information she has provided. It is one thing to claim to have aided the police; it is quite another to be able to show some results. Police should not be wasting their time with this kind of aid. Psychics have never solved crimes.

The Globe needs to take a critical look whenever someone claims to have psychic abilities. [The Globe did have another article about the skepticism of the father of missing person.]

The letter is especially refreshing after last week's ridiculous edition of ABC's Primetime with segments on psychic detectives and reincarnation.

April 11, 2004. I know some of you think I have been hard on the Bush administration's treatment of science. Some of you may have concerns that I site the Union of Concerned Scientists in my claim that this administration has made war on science. John Marburger, Science Adviser to the President and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, defends the administration. Chris Mooney of CSICOP doesn't think much of the defense, however. "Don't Listen to Those Pesky Scientists - Why science adviser John Marburger's defense of the Bush administration's science policies fails" (April 8, 2004) has been posted.

further reading

April 4, 2004. Faith has been declared a mental illness by a jury in Tyler, Texas, where the story of Abraham and Isaac has been reenacted with a vengeance and tragic twist. A 39-year-old woman who bashed in the skulls of her three sons, killing two of them and disabling for life the other, because God told her to do so as a test of faith, has been declared insane. She will be in a mental hospital while she awaits the rapture. Her lawyer took his client's lack of tears over the deaths as a sign of her mental illness. However, it is reported that Deanna Laney "broke into tears as the verdict was read."

April 1, 2004. Add a new name to the growing list of folks who say the dead are communicating with them and, for a fee, they will pass on snippets of sounds and numbers and names for you to connect with. Her name is Rebecca Rosen, Messenger of Light. She'll do her thing for 100 people at $25 each or she'll do a private reading for $225 for 45 minutes.

I'm in the wrong profession.

March 27, 2004. Penn and Teller return for a second season of Bullshit! on Showtime. This year they take on PETA, the Bible, and love...among other things.

March 26, 2004. Despite claims by the Bush administration that abortion increases breast cancer risks, an international group of researchers reports today that abortion doesn't increase the risk of breast cancer. This supports a similar conclusion a year ago by the National Cancer Institute.

March 17, 2004. Between 75 and 100 US delegates due to travel to Cuba to attend the Fourth International Symposium on Coma and Death were informed five days before the opening ceremony that they would not be permitted to attend. The Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) denied the required authorization for the trip, according to The Scientist.

March 16, 2004. Chris Mooney has posted his take on the war on science by the Bush administration. And Phil Plait gets some publicity for his detailed attack on a menace known as John Hoagland.

For more Mooney on Bush's attack on science see:

March 15, 2004. The Making of Bigfoot: The Inside Story by Greg Long is being published this month by Prometheus. The Washington Post's Richard Leiby reports that Bob Heironimus, a retired Pepsi bottler from Yakima, Wash., says that he is the one in the gorilla costume in the famous Patterson film. Long claims the gorilla costume was made by a guy in North Carolina whose name is (I'm not making this up) Philip Morris. Roger Patterson allegedly bought the suit for $435. Patterson died in 1972 but his associate Bob Gimlin's lawyer Tom Malone told Leiby that "I'm authorized to tell you that nobody wore a gorilla suit or monkey suit and that Mr. Gimlin's position is that it's absolutely false and untrue."

So, there you have it. You now have it on Mr. Long's authority, seconded by Mr. Heironimus, that the Bigfoot with the pendulous breasts in the Patterson film was a bottler named Bob. Believe it or not!
[thanks to John Renish]

Even more interesting than the Bigfoot debate is the intelligent design debate raging over Professor Brian Leiter's scathing criticism of a review of Francis Beckwith's book, Law, Darwinism, & Public Education, that appeared in the Harvard Law Review and was penned by student editor Lawrence VanDyke. Leiter is in turn attacked in the National Review Online by Beckwith's graduate assistant Hunter Baker. Everything is put into perspective by biologist PZ Myers.

March 12, 2004. "Scientists interviewed by The Scientist in recent days said they believed that continued political interference from the Bush administration would not only have a negative impact on the quality of US science, but eventually on global science." More....

March 10, 2004. The United States Department of Education continues the Bush administration's assault on science education by weighing in on the side of the "intelligent design" (ID) advocates. Even though ID has produced nothing of scientific interest or value and is unlikely ever to do so, the Acting Deputy Secretary Gene Hickok sent a buzzword-filled letter to Congressional offices expressing the Department's support of teaching ID in biology classes in the name of academic freedom. The letter calls attention to

...Congressional report language in the No Child Left Behind Act [NCLB] that states that "where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist." The Department further expressed its own support for the "general principles...of academic freedom and inquiry into scientific views or theories."

The Education Department letter was a response to an inquiry from Montana's superintendent of public instruction in which the superintendent apparently asked whether the alternative theory of "intelligent design" was "required" by the [NCLB]. *

The silver lining in this cloud over science education in America is that Hickok did state that NCLB does not require the teaching of ID. The Discovery Institute--the source of most of the energy underlying the ID movement--issued a press release on Hickok's letter, indicating it was not entirely pleased because

The letter also made clear that the federal government does not require or prohibit the teaching of any particular scientific view or theory of origins.

Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute, called the inquiry from the Montana superintendent a "red herring" from the "Darwin-only lobby." Chapman also said "The issue before states and localities is not about teaching intelligent design, let alone requiring it, no matter how hard the Darwinists try to spin the topic."

I have a question for Chapman's confessor: If one tells a lie for a good cause, does it really count as a lie in the eyes of God? The issue is not about teaching ID? Damn, how did we miss that?

The Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch says she wrote the letter because the Rev. Curtis Brickley was claiming that the NCLB act required the teaching of intelligent design. Brickley had proposed to the Darby school board that they adopt an "objective origins" policy. McCulloch says that she had asked a simple question and wanted a simple answer; but got a mini-polemic as a bonus.

Hickok referenced what's commonly referred to as the Santorum amendment. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., had proposed some language for the NCLB act, and while the language was part of an early version of the bill, it was later removed. The language stated, in part, that "where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist."

"This language is based on a Senate resolution that passed by a vote of 91-8," Hickok wrote.

In fact, the Santorum language is not part of the NCLB act and has no legal standing, although it remains part of a conference committee report.

"I feel like they answered my letter and then editorialized an awful lot, too," McCulloch said. "Going into the whole Santorum amendment is not necessary, because it's not binding and it's not part of the law."*

Anyway, the real red herring here is the same one we saw with the "creation science" subterfuge of a few years ago: This is a common-sense, fairness, academic freedom issue, not an attempt by a minority sectarian group on the other side of the fringes of the scientific community to get its message across. Once again, the zealots have characterized the mainstream scientific community as a zealous group of dogmatic fanatics who will use any method at their disposal to prevent the young minds in their charge from hearing the views of outsiders who are motivated only by a love of truth and fairness.

This tactic is a red herring because the real issue isn't whether ID is worth the paper the theory is printed on but whether the scientific community or some group of ideologues with a religious agenda should be the determining factor in what gets taught in the science classroom.

My own recommendation is for science writers everywhere to take up the issue of ID and expose it for what it is. Then, it should not require much explaining why it is not included in any intelligent lesson on evolution. Developing this argument should not take up more than a few pages to express nor more than a few minutes to read once expressed. If you need help in producing your ID précis, there is a book coming out this summer which may provide you with all the ammunition you will need: Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism, eds., Matt Young and Taner Edis (Rutgers University Press 2004).

If you want more details than you could ever possibly use in one lifetime, see Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, edited by Robert T. Pennock (MIT Press 2001).

Or you may freely copy and distribute as you see fit the following:

Why ID is not part of the biology curriculum

1. Scientific achievement: ID has achieved nothing so far, and is unlikely to achieve anything of interest to science in the future. It has not aroused the interest of scientists actively doing research in biology. In short, we don't want to waste your time.

2. Other achievements of ID: ID has created much confusion among politicians, the media, and the general public by repeatedly asserting the lie that evolution is a theory in crisis. Repeatedly asserting a lie is an old political ploy and should be of interest to political scientists but is not of interest to biologists. If you want ID as part of the curriculum, we suggest that you demand that the school board require political science classes to teach the politics of ID. See Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design by Barbara Carroll Forrest and Paul R. Gross (Oxford University Press 2003).

3. Conclusion: ID claims that some biological mechanisms are irreducibly complex and could not have evolved part by part. In short, the only thing that can explain some things is that a miracle happened. If we could know the ID claim is true, this would be valuable because it would save us a lot of time and money that we might otherwise waste in doing research or in thinking about how each part of a complex mechanism like an eye, a wing, a flagellum, or a modern honey bee dance might have evolved. But, we can't know the ID claim is true. At best, one making the ID argument can truthfully say: I don't see how this mechanism could have evolved part by part, so I can't see how any naturalistic mechanism like natural selection could account for its evolution. However, the ID arguer asserts something quite different, namely:  I don't see how this mechanism could have evolved part by part, so it didn't and no naturalistic mechanism like natural selection could account for its evolution. Richard Dawkins calls this kind of thinking "the Argument from Personal Incredulity" (River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Basic Books, 1995, pp. 70, 77, 90-91). Personal incredulity is a hindrance to scientific inquiry. It should be obvious why we do not want to teach the methods of the ID folks to our science students. We want to encourage our students to think and to explore nature, not to throw up their hands every time they can't believe there is a naturalistic explanation for some phenomenon and declare it therefore must be due to a miracle like ID. If you want to appeal to miracles to explain things, we suggest you join a religion. If you want to learn about harmful or useless or fallacious methods of scientific investigation, we suggest you take a course in logic that emphasizes fallacies or a course in the philosophy of science.

4. Postscript: By the way, when in biology we don't know how some mechanism evolved, we say we don't know how it evolved....yet. Students are free to draw their own conclusions from this. Some might give a nodding wink to each other and see this as supporting their religious convictions. Such students stop thinking about the issue except to remind themselves of God's miracles. Others might see this as a scientific challenge and set to work trying to fill another gap in our knowledge. Which kind of student do you think is likely to make a contribution to science?

March 5, 2004. Jim Scharnagel,  a resident of Gainesville, Florida, had a very nice essay on evolution and science education published in the Gainesville Times. It's nice every so often to see a newspaper publish something that isn't pro-intelligent design.

March 5, 2004. George W. Bush dismissed two members of his President's Council on Bioethics last Friday afternoon. Biochemist Elizabeth Blackburn and medical ethicist William May were dismissed. Bettie Sue Masters, president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASCB), called the president's decision “very ill-advised.”

“Even before Dr. Blackburn's dismissal, scientists were heavily outnumbered by nonscientists with strong anti-research ideological views,” said ASCB public policy chair Larry Goldstein in a statement. “Now it will be even more unlikely than before that the council will be able to make informed ethical decisions.”

Bernard Siegel, the Genetics Policy Institute's executive director, told The Scientist that “It is a shame that [Blackburn] is being replaced by outspoken foes of [somatic cell nuclear transfer] research. This is… another punch in the face to scientists and disease advocates by the folks more concerned about 'energizing their political base' than finding cures.”

February 29, 2004. Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who linked autism to the MMR vaccine in a paper published by The Lancet in 1998, received  £55,000 from a legal aid project set up to look for links between the vaccine and the disorder, but he did not disclose this fact when he submitted his paper. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, says that he would not have published Wakefield’s paper had he known of the conflict of interest. Wakefield has hired a libel lawyer and is demanding an apology from The Lancet.

We now know that Wakefield was paid more than £400,000 by lawyers trying to prove that the vaccine was unsafe. The payments were part of £3.4m distributed from the legal aid fund to doctors and scientists who had been recruited to support a now failed lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers.*
[thanks to Joe Littrell and Orac]

I wrote about this mythical link bewteen autism and the MMR vaccine last September and in May 2002.

February 26, 2004. About one-third of the Darby, Montana, high school's 170 students walked out of school 15 minutes early to protest the school board's decision to question evolution. Also, a Darby couple has threatened to sue the school board if it goes ahead with its anti-evolutionary proposals. The school board voted last week to retain a lawyer whose fees will be paid by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian conservative group based in Arizona.

In Ohio, a Case Western Reserve University scientist says he will go to court if the State Board of Education approves a 10th-grade biology lesson plan that will give teachers a green light to teach "intelligent design." In California, UC Berkeley has posted its Understanding Evolution website for teachers.

further reading

February 23, 2004. Mark Mayer, a skeptic and mentalist, filed a complaint with Consumer Affairs against John Edward in Melbourne, Australia, as Edward began his After Life tour in Perth on Friday. Mayer believes under section 106A of the Fair Trading Act John Edward should be required to substantiate his claim that he communicates with the dead.

"In the history of spiritualism no one has ever been able to prove that they communicate with the dead," said Mayer, who wants Edward to specify in promotions for the show that it is entertainment only. Mayer would like Edward to give refunds to ticket holders who believe they were misled by the show's promotions.

Good luck!
[thanks to John Stuart]

February 19, 2004. For those interested in faking data by scientists, this story in The Scientist should be of interest: Fraud spurs Cell paper retraction - Postdoc fabricated data, leaving his career in tatters and embarrassing his boss by Theresa Tamkins.

February 18, 2004. A statement condemning the Bush administration's deliberately distorting scientific facts "for partisan political ends" was issued today by a group of scientists calling itself the Union of Concerned Scientists. In all, sixty scientists signed the statement, including 20 Nobel laureates, accusing the administration of suppressing, distorting and undermining the integrity of scientific analyses in policymaking. According to these scientists, Bush administration officials ignored expert assessments from three national laboratories in concluding Iraq was seeking to acquire aluminum tubes to make nuclear weapons. The administration also has dropped highly qualified, independent scientists from scientific advisory committees on issues such as child lead poisoning, environmental health, and drug abuse, replacing them with figures tied to regulated industries. The scientists laid out their allegations in a 37-page report.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has written an article about the Bush administration's abuse of science. He calls it The Junk Science of George W. Bush.

Dr. John Marburger III, director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that "The president is actually quite supportive of science." This is true, especially if the science harmonizes with his religious beliefs.

©copyright 2003
Robert Todd Carroll

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