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Texas and The Flintstones

Most of Rationality Now’s readers are probably quite familiar with the influence Texas has on our country’s textbooks… and the mind-numbing inanity of some Texas Board of Education members, like Don McLeroy, who wield that influence. Fortunately, there are some school board members who have their feet firmly planted in reality, but they’re in the minority (still?) and they’ve got a continuous battle on their hands to keep Texas education standards from drowning in an anti-intellectual, anti-science, and anti-reality flood of woo.

Sadly, they get far too little support from the general population of their state, at least according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. 51% of Texans surveyed disagree with the statement that humans developed from earlier species. 22% say that they believe life existed in its present form since the beginning of time. Almost a third (a third!) believe that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time… or, as A Simple Prop says, a third of Texans apparently think The Flintstones is a documentary.

That a horrifyingly large number of people who blatantly reject scientific facts in favor of ancient mythology.

Perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps they aren’t rejecting facts. Perhaps they are ignorant of the facts. Perhaps they’ve never spent the time to do any actual research (apart from reading the bible, which doesn’t really count). Perhaps they’ve just been taught that the bible is all they need to know and so haven’t been exposed to the actual facts.

So perhaps it’s not an arrogant rejection of facts. Perhaps it’s just an ignorance of facts. However, I would wager that the ignorance is, in most cases, suffused with a strong bunker mentality built of bibles and hallelujahs… a nearly impenetrable wall designed to keep out any reality that contradicts the bronze and iron age dogma so prevalent in Texas.

However, arrogance or ignorance, it’s a disgrace that people who reject reality have any influence whatsoever in the education of our children and the running of our government. It’s bad enough when the influence is on a local level, but when that influence is able to reach every corner of our country, as it is with Texas education standards and textbooks, it approaches a level of crippling absurdity that threatens to flush our country’s intellectual integrity into the sewers.

…if it hasn’t been flushed already.

Why Evolution is True in paperback

Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True came out recently in paperback, so if you were waiting to purchase it because of the hardcover price, you’ve got a green light. If you’ve already got the hardcover, consider purchasing the paperback and donating it to your local library. I just picked up a copy today for $16.00 at Borders to donate (I already have a signed hardback edition), but you can get it from Amazon for $10.88 (at the time of this writing).

It’s a terrific book.

Note: Jerry Coyne also has a blog where he discusses evolution in addition to a number of other issues. Definitely worth following.

Mississippi targeted by creationists

Mississippi can now lay claim to hosting the first anti-evolution bill of 2010, according to the National Center for Science Education. Gary Chism (R-District 37), who last year introduced a bill that would have required biology textbooks to include a classic creationist disclaimer about evolution, has sponsored this new bill, HB 586.

From the NCSE article:

[The bill] would, if enacted, require local school boards to include a lesson on human evolution at the beginning of their high school biology classes. The catch: "The lesson provided to students … shall have proportionately equal instruction from educational materials that present scientifically sound arguments by protagonists and antagonists of the theory of evolution."

Chism seems to be a classic creationist… meaning that he has no business poking his nose into the science education of our children. This is from the NCSE article referring to his 2009 bill…

Speaking to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (January 24, 2009), Chism was candid about his motivations for the bill [HB 25 from 2009], explaining, "Either you believe in the Genesis story, or you believe that a fish walked on the ground," and adding, "All these molecules didn’t come into existence by themselves." HB 25 died in committee on February 3, 2009.

Chism is obviously ignorant about evolution.

The (sort of) bright side is that the newly proposed bill also says…

The lesson provided to students shall not evidence bias through selective instruction on the theory of evolution, but rather, shall have proportionately equal instruction from educational materials that present scientifically sound arguments by protagonists and antagonists of the theory of evolution.

I’m amused by the phrase "selective instruction," but the good part is the phrase "educational materials that present scientifically sound arguments." As anyone who’s honestly studied evolution knows, there are no scientifically sound arguments against evolution… so Mississippi could be safe. I doubt Chism sees it that way, however, so perhaps we should still be worried.

Let’s hope HB 586 suffers the same fate as HB 25.


Stephen Baldwin vs. Richard Dawkins?

Hemant Mehta, at The Friendly Atheist, linked to a video showing Stephen Baldwin commenting on evolution during Celebrity Big Brother 2010 UK… and an explanation by Richard Dawkins showing why Baldwin’s comments are ignorant bunk.

Here’s the video:

And here’s the money quote from Hemant:

It’s both funny and sad when you realize the person who is the most ignorant about evolution is the person who appears to be the most confident in his knowledge of it.

I find that to be true for a number of other scientific issues as well.

(credit to Atheist Media Blog for the original find)

Monarch Butterflies and creationism

I almost had a confrontation with someone I believe is a creationist today, but I refrained.

I was at the Pennsylvania Farm Show with my daughter and while we were walking through the exhibits, I heard a voice talking about monarch butterflies over a PA system. What I heard was interesting and I finally located the person behind the voice… an elderly gentleman with a white beard seated on a chair in front of one of the stages. He had a small audience of maybe ten people.

My daughter and I were headed a different direction to see other things, so I didn’t pay him much attention, but I did hear him talk about how Monarch Butterfly caterpillars eat the milkweed plant… and only the milkweed plant… that without it, they would starve.

He was just passing out of my attention sphere when I heard (something like), “If there are any evolutionists in the crowd, I’d like to hear an explanation about how the milkweed plant just happened to evolve right where the butterflies are. It doesn’t make much sense and doesn’t seem very likely.”

I froze. Oh, that seemed like a challenge… and a rather simple one at that. I looked back at him. He didn’t really wait for an answer, but went on talking about butterflies again, so perhaps he meant it as a rhetorical question… just a snarky aside that really didn’t have anything to do with his topic, but everything to do with his religious views (and his ignorance). I weighed my options, decided not to interrupt, and then laughed in his direction before continuing on with my daughter to other exhibits.

It bothered me to not respond, but I wasn’t in his audience and the presentation really was about butterflies, not evolution. In addition, my daughter and I were headed a different direction to find other things, so it would have been an interruption of our plans as well. But not responding was letting ignorance go unchallenged and letting it spread to others. I think that’s why it continued to bother me and has me mildly disappointed in myself.

It’s rare for me to encounter that type of behavior in person. I read about it happening a lot and hear stories of it happening, but when it happens to me, I’m always a bit stunned… like a deer in the headlights.

I think I need more practice.

New tetrapod footprints found

Matthew Cobb of Why Evolution Is True writes about some recently found fossil tetrapod footprints that are roughly 20 million years older than the now famous Tiktaalik fossil, which was a lobe-finned fish (not quite having tetrapod status).

Cobb says:

These exquisitely-preserved traces not only date to 397 MY (22 MY years earlier than Tiktaalik) above all they clearly show the marks of feet and toes. They were not made by a lobe-finned fish. They were made by tetrapods. And big ones at that – some of the traces (there are around a dozen of them) suggest the animals were up to 2 metres long.

Paleontologist Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki, who discovered the tracks, originally thought they were dinosaur tracks until he realized that the rocks where the tracks were found were older than the earliest dinosaurs. That’s a pretty cool discovery!

Tetrapod Footprints

There are no skeletal fossils yet of the creature that made the tracks, so we don’t have an indication of what the creature looked like, but (Cobb again)…

…the fact that they show such clear traces of toes shows that the current view that tetrapods evolved at most 385 MY ago is wrong. Behaviour has trumped anatomy – we can see what the animal did, even if we don’t (yet) know exactly what animal made it. For the moment, these animals are “ghost fossils” – they must have existed, but we don’t know what they were.

There’s even more excitement about this discovery because of its location.

Not an obscure Polish quarry, but the tropical tidal mud-flats that made up the rock that was eventually dug up nearly 400 MY later. It was previously thought that the first steps onto land – like those by Tiktaalik – were made in brackish ponds. The authors correctly write that their discoveries “force a radical reassessment of the timing, ecology and environmental setting of the fish-tetrapod transition, as well as the completeness of the body fossil record”.

PZ Myers talks about the footprints on Pharyngula, too. Here’s an image of the footprints in sequence.

Tetrapod Footprint Path

Myers says:

Here are the trackways. Note that what they show is distinct footprints from both the front and hind limbs, not drag marks, and all that that implies: these creatures had jointed limbs with knees and elbows and lifted them and swung them forward to plant in the mud. They were real walkers.

Aside from the really cool discovery, what I also find interesting about this discovery is the attitude of the scientists who are writing about it. There is no obstinate clinging to established understandings of the evolutionary path(s) taken from fish to tetrapod. They happily acknowledge that we have to reassess our understanding based on this new information. There will be plenty of debate, additional research, and disagreements about the implications of the new discovery… but that’s how science works. When new information presents itself, it must be considered and, if it somehow changes our previously deduced conclusions, our conclusions must change.

Ultimately, it leads us to a greater understanding of our world and our history.

And isn’t that the whole point of science?

Update: Brian Switek of Laelaps has a great writeup on this as well!

Nova-What Darwin Never Knew

Just a quick post to suggest a fantastic program. I watched this and was mezmorized. The last episode of NOVA (on PBS) was called, “What Darwin Never Knew”.  It delved into the genetics that Darwin could never have been aware of, yet reinforced his theories. The program illustrated just how brilliant Darwin’s theories were, considering he had no access to modern genetic research.


Jerry Coyne’s talk at the AAI convention

When Craig and I attended the Atheist Alliance International convention in Burbank this year in October, one of the speakers on Saturday was Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True. He gave an entertaining and informative talk summarizing the evidence for evolution and was probably one of my favorite speakers at the convention.

I came across the YouTube link to his talk again today, watched it, and thought I’d share. It’s about 57 minutes long, which includes a question and answer session at the end.

Well worth the viewing time!

PZ Myers re: The science of evolution

PZ Myers responded to another absurdist email that chastised him about promoting the theory of evolution. The emailer says "to have a degree or degrees in biology and to still believe in Darwinian theory, shows ignorance in the worst degree." PZ’s response was spot on and included this beautiful bit…

The science points ineluctably to evolution as a fact, as the mechanism for biological change over time. The only people who argue otherwise, and that includes those ‘sciences’ [sic] you claim have concluded that the theory is false, are ideologues who have had their brains addled by non-scientific presuppositions, and who have decided that their fallacious traditional myths must supersede observation and evidence.


Help Alabama students learn real science

On The Axis of Evo blog, Colin Purrington points out that Alabama puts a disclaimer sticker into the front of its science textbooks… since 1996. He’d like it to stop. I’d like it to stop. You should like it to stop.

Here’s what Colin is trying to do.

So I’d like your help in advertising this silliness so that the media might care, which it currently doesn’t: I want to collect high-quality photographs of students showing the disclaimer but who are also doing something like eye-rolling, gagging, or vomiting. Or just expressions of honest disbelief on his/her face while the student holds the book open to the offending disclaimer.  Anyone in Alabama who might be able to help me out? I’d normally nudge friends at Alabama Citizens for Science Education, but its web site (http://www.alscience.org/) seems expired. Perhaps they were besieged by an angry mob with pitchforks.  God help them.

Send me your photographs, science fans. Do it for the children.

If you can help out, or know someone who can, contact Colin via his website.

Here’s the sticker in question…

Alabama Science Book Dislcaimer Sticker