July 18, 2008

Luskin's Wrist Rant: Leave it to the Experts

I happened to be a little slow confronting the Bobby Jindal/War on Science news coming out of Louisiana, and as soon as I got my post up yesterday my email inbox was flooded with some strange news from the Discovery Institute (DI).

I highlighted in my previous post the new legislation supposing to bring "academic freedom" into Louisiana's high schools by way of allowing outside supplemental material to be brought into science classes. This new scheme though has no title, no name, and no identifying features other than to highlight the need for academic freedom, but only when the issue is evolution. The Bad Idea Blog sums it up pretty nicely:

The obvious trick in all of these bills is that they never specify a standard of accuracy that such criticisms have to meet, and they are often vague as to who is going to evaluate or enforce that standard in any case.

Scientists in general already do a pretty good job of including actual scientific controversy and ambiguity in textbooks and curricula, which makes these bills basically an invitation to introduce legally protected psuedoscience into local classrooms. If this sounds a little too much like the "teach the controversy" strategy of the original creationists, well, you and I are like the 800th and 801st people to notice that.
Whether it is publicly stated or not the DI is right now the leading public institution behind these bills and behind the majority of creationist/intelligent design/academic freedom/untitled "research" and promotion of evolution's faults. Casey Luskin, resident lawyer and cheerleader for the DI has posted an article that contains a major gaffe while trying to throw doubt on recent work by paleontologist Neil Shubin, discoverer of the transitional tetrapod Tiktaalik and the author of the excellent book "Your Inner Fish."

Here is Luskin's argument straight from his mouth.
1. Shubin et al.: "The intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik
have homologues to eponymous wrist bones of tetrapods with which they
share similar positions and articular relations." (Note: I have labeled
the intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik in the diagram below.)
Translation: OK, then exactly which "wrist bones of tetrapods" are Tiktaalik’s
bones homologous to? Shubin doesn’t say. This is a technical scientific
paper, so a few corresponding "wrist bone"-names from tetrapods would
seem appropriate. But Shubin never gives any.
Eponymous, adj: Of, relating to, or being the person after which something is named.

That quick wiktionary search just debunked Luskin's whole argument. Eponymous basically means similarly or derivitatively named, which means Shubin has given the names for the corresponding tetrapod bones (they have the same names in tetrapods as they do in Tiktaalik).

Understandably this was probably a mistake and had Luskin done the proper research (ie: get a fucking dictionary if you don't know what a word means) he would have realized his mistake, but this is one of the guy's that is going to be leading the push for so-called "academic freedom" concerning evolution. He works for an institute who's purpose is to try and punch holes in evolution and bring those holes into the public discussion.

If this is the type of "critical thinking" that the DI is trying to push into school's I think it worth people's time to see just how insufficient the DI's work is. Unfortunately this is where being a lay person and being an expert butt heads, experts are far more qualified to establish what is good and what is crap research. Lay people have trouble understanding the intricacies involved with technical jargon and statistical modeling, which is why we have experts in the first place.

I guess what I'm really trying to get at here is that the guy claiming a grand conspiracy of evolution and promoting the right to question and rethink the dogma himself cannot complete a rational analysis of the data. There is already an institution set up to monitor and judge the worthiness of a paper/journal/theory and that is the scientific community themselves. Scientists, are generally skeptical of claims made in papers. I know when I read a paper, even if I like what it says the first thing I do is scrutinize the figures and tables looking for a weakness or misrepresentation. I like to scour references to further examine the strength of the paper until I am satisfied that the author has interpreted the data correctly. And then here's the kicker; I get on the internet and search through the blogs of those guys who are experts in the field, because my opinion means very little compared to these guys.

In fact, Carl Zimmer and PZ Myers both share their thoughts on Luskin's flub in a far more meaningful way than I can.  Hopefully I will one day join them among the ranks of the experts, confident that I can tease meaning away from the primary literature.  Until then I must defer to the experts and simply add in my little thoughts.  I would hope that the google scholars and high school teachers/administrators could understand this point.  Leave the job of science to the scientists.

More After the Fold...


What the hell is the difference?

So the White House issued a press release today discussing Bushie's recent talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. Apparently, everything is moving along nicely over there, but Bush reiterated his opposition to any time lines for troop withdrawals.

You can't win a war if you have an artificial timetable for withdrawal.... Artificial timetable for withdrawal send the wrong message to the Iraqis, they're seeing it's not worth it. There's a lot of Iraqis over there determined -- trying to make up their mind whether they want to be a part of democracy, or whether or not they're going to take to the hills and see what happens. Artificial timetable for withdrawal, an early withdrawal before this finishes sends the message to the enemy, we were right about America. That's what they said. Al Qaeda has said it's just a matter of time before America withdraws. They're weak, they're corrupt, they can't stand it, and they'll withdraw. And all that would do is confirm what the enemy thinks.
Oh wait, that was from 2006. Apparently, Bush has been doing some McCain-style flip-flopping. Time lines equal surrender and failure and scary things. But "horizons" for troop reductions are just awesome, simply the natural course of the super-successful surge.
In the area of security cooperation, the President and the Prime Minister agreed that improving conditions should allow for the agreements now under negotiation to include a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals -- such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq.
Ok, so I have a question. I'm pretty sure that when Democrats (and other sentient beings) have called for a time line for troop withdrawals from Iraq, they we asking for something like "Down by 50% in 2 years, down to no more than 20,000 in 4 years, contingent on conditions permitting." I don't remember anyone credible demanding a time line which called for every single US service member to be outside of the Iraqi borders by June 10th, 2009 at 8 am, no exceptions. And my question is, what the hell is the difference between setting a time line, which according to Bush is tantamount to recasting the Statue of Liberty in Osama Bin Laden's image, and setting a horizon? They mean the same damn thing! They are both a tentative plan under which our leadership attempts to reduce the number of American forces in Iraq. From Obama's website:
The removal of our troops will be responsible and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government. Military experts believe we can safely redeploy combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of 1 to 2 brigades a month that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 – more than 7 years after the war began.
Nothing about that plan even implies a "date-certain" deadline. Seems to be another example of the Bush/McCain strategy suddenly mirroring what Obama and other Democrats have been advocating for years.

Obviously the difference is the source. When Dems call for...well...anything, it is treason and betrayal, but if the Bush Cabal makes the same determination, its part of their carefully planned and patriotic vision for Victory.


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July 15, 2008

The Louisiana Science Education Act: A Step Closer to Religious Science

Louisiana, with strong support from it's Rhodes Scholar Governor, Bobby Jindall, recently signed into law the "Science Education Act." The stated goal of the legislation is to allow for "academic freedom" in high schools with the respect to teaching science (more on academic freedom later), but this is in fact a cover for the true reason behind the law, to allow the teaching of religious ideals at the expense of examining the evidence and reasoning that have led to the modern synthesis of science.

Under the Act Louisiana teachers may, under protection of the law, "use supplementary textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner." The law is also explicitly clear on prohibiting teaching religion in the name of science, stating that its provisions "shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine." This is the biggest lie I've seen in legislation in a while, although I understand why its there, to protect the constitutionality of the law. By denouncing religious motivation the Act will not be subject to federal separation laws, but the law itself is meant to encourage unconstitutional behavior from local school boards.

Here's where the tricky part comes in, the ACLU knows they can't challenge the law in court as it was deftly written to conform to constitutional standards, but its implications will not be covered under the law. If religion is brought into a science classroom the ACLU will sue, or parents who were irked by religious instruction will sue. This will produce a noisy, expensive federal lawsuit, followed by even noisier and more expensive appeals. Guess where a local school board is going to get the money to fight these lawsuits; the property owners of the school district. The Discovery Institute (DI), a creationist think-tank and clear leader in the anti-science movement, helped support this bill and promoted it over the state. Where will they be when the shit hits the fan and these same school boards are being sued and need the legal and monetary support?

Defending creationist school boards isn't the DI's game, they like to a) sell creationist textbooks and b) keep creationism in the news so they can keep the lecture gigs and wealthy funders going. Just like in the Dover case, where the DI's own book was put on trial, once the books were sold the Institute left the school board and their taxpayers to fend for themselves.

Hoodwinked, being played, becoming the patsy, these are all good ways to describe what the DI did to Louisiana. The motivation behind this should be pretty transparent, the DI really really wants to start selling more books in the classroom and they'll encourage state legislators and clueless governors to enact laws that tempt local school boards to unconstitutional behavior. And when the sucker school boards are spending their own tax dollars on the defense of a hopeless bill the DI will say they had absolutely nothing to do with it, they just offered support to an academic freedom bill.

Now what exactly is academic freedom? The American Association of University Professors' definition refers to the ability to do research and publish outside of the influence of administrators. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) says that this bill has co-opted and misused the term to appeal to the public. Academic freedom is not a principle that applies to high school. Yes we want you to be able to question the evidence and understand the critical thinking process that led to the interpretation of data, but you are not doing research and publishing. High school is a place for students to learn the basics of science so that they may pursue and take full advantage of academic freedom in a university setting and beyond.

This time the DI's motivation was promoting the book, Explore Evolution, a text offering the standard intelligent design critiques of evolution. But unlike its predecessor, Of Pandas and People, which fared badly during the Dover trial, it does not use the term "intelligent design."

They're learning what it takes to pass laws that can stand the test of constitutionality while at the same time allowing individuals to perform unconstitutional acts through a false protection of the law. The DI will certainly benefit in two years when the Supreme Court hears a case that references their book many many times.

Another big problem I have with this law is the availability of students to attend a school that will teach religion. Louisiana has a multitude of catholic schools who will give your child a good religious background, but you may want to be careful because they study evolution in their sciences classes (with the support of the Vatican). Another option is to home school the kid and you can teach him whatever he wants, that's true academic freedom. Just don't expect him to be a doctor or a scientist when you send him to college and his "science" background fails miserably at preparing him for college science courses.

More After the Fold...


July 14, 2008

Black President and White America

Our friends over at Left of College Station blog have an interesting article concerning race relations if Obama is in fact elected President. Read it here...

More After the Fold...