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Please Welcome Erika Engelhaupt to Phenomena!

Erika only has eyes for you, dino (shot at the Phil Fraley studio, while on assignment for the Philadelphia Inquirer).

Today, Phenomena gets a little spookier as we welcome Erika Engelhaupt to the salon. The name of her blog says it all: In Gory Details, she’ll be bringing you tales from the darker side of science — creepy thrills, macabre reality checks, and stuff for which the term “morbid fascination” aptly applies.

Maybe it has something to do with all the time she spent tromping around in swamps while studying environmental science, earning a couple of master’s degrees and – in her words – publishing “boring science papers.” After that, Erika ditched the science papers and began writing for newspapers, triggering a metamorphosis from scientist to science journalist. Now, in addition to being our newest Pheno-type, Erika is also the online science editor for National Geographic, and will help manage the Phenomena blog network.

I’ve known Erika for a while now (she was one of my editors at Science News), and she’s always seemed so…normal? To celebrate the launch of Gory Details, I asked Erika some questions about where she’s headed.


So what’s this obsession with gory stuff?

I suspect I may have read too many Stephen King novels at a young age. My mom and I would tear them in half down the spine so we could each read half at the same time. I’ve always enjoyed reading about creepy stuff (but no scary movies—I prefer my imagined horrors over Hollywood’s versions). Combine that with a love of science, and I guess you get Gory Details.

How did Gory Details come about?

I was an editor at Science News, and one day I was sitting in my office and looked at a shelf filled with books I had reviewed for the magazine. There were titles like Blood Work, The Killer of Little Shepherds (a fantastic forensic history), and That’s Disgusting. It had never really dawned on me until that point that maybe I had a morbid fascination. Suddenly it just popped into my head—I should write a column on the dark side of science and call it Gory Details.

At the time the magazine was soliciting ideas for news columns, but mine was initially considered too gross for a column. So I had to bide my time for two years until we were launching new blogs, and I got my chance. And it turned out that other people shared my curiosity.

What do you want this blog to be about?

So many things! First, I want to really delve into forensic science, because there’s so much going on right now. We’re at this strange point where there are really amazing high-tech methods being developed to analyze crime, but mostly what police have to work with is very old-school, and actually a lot of basic forensic analyses, like hair analysis, are being questioned — is this stuff even really science?

I’m fascinated by all manner of dead things, too. That includes archaeology, and pretty much anything involving old bones. I’m a sucker for a Neanderthal story, because I love to think about how close we are to our beetle-browed cousins.

Then there is, of course, the gross beat. I ended up writing a lot of stories about pee and poop in the blog previously, and every now and then I would announce a hiatus on bodily functions stories. But then someone would come along with some fascinating thing about fecal transplants or something, and I’d be off to the races with that.

I’d also like to branch out into some other areas that people might not immediately think of as gory, but that fall into the “huh, weird” category. So robots and artificial intelligence, perception (which, trust me, is full of really strange stuff), and the dark side of human nature.  And I’m an environmental scientist by training, so I’m going to claim that environmental nasties are something we need to examine in gory detail too.

Evidence of actual past scientific endeavor. Here's Erika in grad school, studying soil microbial activity in Costa Rica.
Evidence of actual past scientific endeavor: Erika studying soil microbial activity in Costa Rica.

 So…sort of the “eww” beat?

I’m happy to claim the “Eww” beat! When Maryn McKenna joined Phenomena recently with her scare-tastic blog Germination, someone on Twitter pointed out that she was claiming the “oops” beat (since she often covers how we humans have messed up the good thing we had going with antibiotics). And they noted that Ed’s on the “Wow” beat, and Nadia, I think we decided you were the “Boom” beat, right? Or maybe “Oooh”? And if Brian’s “Rock” and Carl’s “Life,” I guess that leaves me with “Eww”!

What are some of the spookier stories you’ve uncovered so far?

Some of my favorites have been ones that pose a “scary thought” kind of question. I really delved into what would happen if a nuclear bomb went off in Washington, D.C., where I live and where sometimes the threat of an attack feels quite real. I wrote about my own odds of survival less than a mile from the White House (not terrible, actually) and how to do the math on whether to seek better shelter or stay put.

Also along those lines are questions like “What lives on us after we die?” and “What drives ‘nice’ people to aggression?

One I found chilling in a different way was a story I uncovered about police in Israel who have developed a way to get fingerprints off rocks. They want to use the technique to find and prosecute Palestinians, often kids, who throw stones at Israelis. It’s a sad reminder of all the people hurt by that conflict.

I also love finding really weird stuff in out-of-the-way corners of science. I had great fun with  the story of a researcher who set up a re-enactment of da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa using toy figures and posited that the original and a studio copy may have been made as the world’s first experiment in 3-D imaging. No one knew about this guy’s work, and after I broke the story it went nuts.

I imagine you’ve got a pretty thick skin since you’re used to diving into the world of weird. Is there anything that’s too creepy, scary or gross for you to deal with?

You know, it’s funny—there’s a psychology test for how easily disgusted a person is, and I tested out dead average. I’m not especially hard to gross out. Maybe that’s part of the fun; that I have a very normal response to this stuff.

But to answer your question, I have tried to be careful about writing about gory medical conditions, because I don’t want to come across as making light of people’s very real problems. And as for what I’m personally freaked out by, it’s gotta be crocodiles. They populate my nightmares.

“I took this in Costa Rica, at a bridge where people gather and occasionally throw meat to the crocodiles,” Erika says. “Nightmares for weeks.”



Will Anyone In Alabama Speak For Evolution?

Let’s get this straight.

An ad attacks a Republican candidate for governor in Alabama, Bradley Byrne, for the horrible crime of defending the teaching of evolution.

Byrne lashes back, stating

As a member of the Alabama Board of Education, the record clearly shows that I fought to ensure the teaching of creationism in our school textbooks. Those who attack me have distorted, twisted and misrepresented my comments and are spewing utter lies to the people of this state.

The nerve of some people to make such horrible accusations.

But wait! As Talking Points Memo observes, the ad that made that scurrilous charge that Byrne might have a bias towards reality has an important back story:

The group behind the ad and others attacking Byrne’s conservative credentials is called the True Republican PAC. Interestingly, as the Montgomery Advertiser reported last month, the PAC has gotten most of its money from the teachers’ union — or, more accurately, from a collection of other PACs heavily funded by the union.

According to the Advertiser, members of the Alabama Education Association have a beef with Byrne for his past attempts to ban the employees of two-year colleges from serving in the state legislature.

Emphasis mine. So does this mean the teachers of Alabama support an attack on a political candidate for not being a creationist (an attack that sadly is not even true)? Is anybody standing up for science in Alabama?

The Enlightenment Goes Dark

jeffersonToday the Enlightenment and Thomas Jefferson were disappeared from Texas.

Here’s a live blog from this morning’s hearings at the Texas State Board of Education. (Emphasis mine.)

9:30 – Board member Cynthia Dunbar wants to change a standard having students study the impact of Enlightenment ideas on political revolutions from 1750 to the present. She wants to drop the reference to Enlightenment ideas (replacing with “the writings of”) and to Thomas Jefferson. She adds Thomas Aquinas and others. Jefferson’s ideas, she argues, were based on other political philosophers listed in the standards. We don’t buy her argument at all. Board member Bob Craig of Lubbock points out that the curriculum writers clearly wanted to students to study Enlightenment ideas and Jefferson. Could Dunbar’s problem be that Jefferson was a Deist? The board approves the amendment, taking Thomas Jefferson OUT of the world history standards.

9:40 – We’re just picking ourselves up off the floor. The board’s far-right faction has spent months now proclaiming the importance of emphasizing America’s exceptionalism in social studies classrooms. But today they voted to remove one of the greatest of America’s Founders, Thomas Jefferson, from a standard about the influence of great political philosophers on political revolutions from 1750 to today.

9:45 – Here’s the amendment Dunbar changed: “explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.” Here’s Dunbar’s replacement standard, which passed: “explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau,  Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.” Not only does Dunbar’s amendment completely change the thrust of the standard. It also appalling drops one of the most influential political philosophers in American history — Thomas Jefferson.

Incidentally, Thomas Jefferson was arguably America’s first paleontologist. Which certainly didn’t help his case in Texas.

This Is The Dawning of Aquarius–In South Dakota

South Dakota, are you kidding me? Astrology in the classroom?

In the fine tradition of creationist legislation that claims that evolution is “just” a theory and that requires the teaching of alternatives, the South Dakota legislature has passed a resolution on the teaching of climate change. Here’s how it starts.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, by the House of Representatives of the Eighty-fifth Legislature of the State of South Dakota, the Senate concurring therein, that the South Dakota Legislature urges that instruction in the public schools relating to global warming include the following: (1) That global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact;
(2) That there are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics that can effect [sic] world weather phenomena and that the significance and interrelativity of these factors is largely speculative…

That red color is mine. This resolution was not just offered, folks. It was approved by a majority of the legislature. Astrology and all.

At least I know what astrological means. Someone’s going to have to help me with thermological, though. It’s not even in the dictionary. (Whoops–I found it in the Oxford English Dictionary. Having to do with heat. Still, though–what about cosmological? Is global warming from the Big Bang?)

Wow. That is all.

Update: Thanks to Loree for pointing out that this original language was amended before the vote. Here‘s what it ended up as:

A CONCURRENT RESOLUTION, Calling for a balanced approach for instruction in the public schools relating to global climatic change.

WHEREAS, evidence relating to global climatic change is complex and subject to varying scientific interpretations; and
WHEREAS, there are a variety of climatological and meteorological dynamics that can affect world weather phenomena, and the significance and interrelativity of these factors remain unresolved; and
WHEREAS,  the debate on global warming has subsumed political and philosophical viewpoints, which has complicated and prejudiced the scientific investigation of global climatic change phenomena:

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, by the House of Representatives of the Eighty-fifth Legislature of the State of South Dakota, the Senate concurring therein, that the South Dakota Legislature urges that all instruction in the public schools relating to global climatic change be presented in a balanced and objective manner and be appropriate to the age and academic development of the student and to the prevailing classroom circumstances.”.

Thankfully, those who don’t know the difference between astrology and astronomy didn’t get their way. But the “balanced” rhetoric that remains is straight out of the creationist playbook. For more, see Science Progress.

[via Think Progress]

Sarah Palin On The Origin of Species

Palin “didn’t believe in the theory that human beings — thinking, loving beings — originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea” or from “monkeys who eventually swung down from the trees.”

Quoted in Michiko Katutani’s review of Sarah Palin’s new memoir.

Missing The Wrist

We’re all for open and objective discussions of scientific theories, right? Who wouldn’t be? If your kids are taking physics in high school, you want them to read critiques of gravity, right? After all, shouldn’t they know that there are some serious weaknesses in the theory of gravity? Right? For instance, the theory of gravity says that gravity makes things fall down. But planets don’t fall into the sun. They go around it. So which is it–down or around? Clearly the theory of gravity is deficient. Right?

Wrong, of course. You don’t teach critical thinking with patent nonsense.

A couple weeks ago Louisiana passed a new science education act that promotes “critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” Along with the regular textbook, the law states, teachers “may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.” The law “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.”

What the law does not make clear, however, is how schools will determine whether the extra instructional material is good science or nonsense. There is nothing in the law that would keep a teacher from introducing a bogus non-argument about gravity and the revolution of the planets.

I was reminded of this sad fact when I read a post published today by Casey Luskin, a staffer at the Discovery Institute, an outfit that promotes intelligent design. Luskin has been one of the leaders of the Discovery Institute’s efforts to get so-called “academic freedom” bills passed in states around the country. He personally testified in Louisiana in favor of their new education bill. When he’s not busy with politics, Luskin writes posts at the Discovery Institute’s “Evolution News and Views” site, where he “critiques” research on evolutionary biology, claiming to find major flaws. But his critique make as much sense as the falling-or-revolving challenge to gravity.

The subject of the post is a 375-million-year-old fossil that helps reveal the transition of our ancestors from the water to land, known as Tiktaalik. I’ve written about Tiktaalik here, and you can get more details from the book Your Inner Fish, written by Neil Shubin, one of Tiktaalik’s discoverers. (Here’s a review I wrote in Nature.)

Luskin claims that Neil Shubin calls Tiktaalik a fish with a wrist, but “from what I can tell, Tiktaalik doesn’t have one.” The bulk of the post is taken up by Luskin’s fruitless search for a diagram or some other helpful information, either in Shubin’s book or the original papers. He is frustrated not to find a picture showing a wrist on Tiktaalik compared to the wrist of a tetrapod (a land vertebrate). This sort of “evidence” leads Luskin to conclude that Shubin has something to hide. “In the end, it’s no wonder Shubin chose not to provide a diagram comparing Tiktaalik’s fin-bones to the bones of a real tetrapod limb,” he writes.

Instead, Luskin is forced to read a scientific paper. He writes:

So we are left to decipher his jargon-filled written comparison in the following sentence by sentence analysis:

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.

Um…Shubin did give them. They are called the intermedium and ulnare. (I just double-checked, for example, in Vertebrates by Ken Kardong, on p.332.) Shubin and his colleagues found two bones in the limb of Tiktaalik that bear a number of similarities to the intermedium and ulnare in the tetrapod wrist–in terms of their arrangement with other limb bones, for example. That’s why Shubin and company refer to the bones in Tiktaalik’s limb by the same two names. They are homologous–in other words, their similarities are due to a common ancestry.

So Luskin wants to know what bones in the tetrapod limb are homologous to Tiktaalik’s intermedium and ulnare. The answer is…the intermedium and ulnare. He has unwittingly answered his own question. Now, perhaps Luskin got tripped up in Shubin’s “jargon-filled” writing. But that doesn’t change the facts–merely Luskin’s understanding of them.

Luskin’s entire post is based on a mistaken notion of homology–the similarity of traits due to common ancestry. The bones of a bird’s wing do not look just like a human arm. Many of the wrist bones in our arm are not present in a bird’s wing, for example, and instead of five fingers the bird has a rod-like bone at the end. But they still bear an overall resemblance in their arrangement. And when evolutionary biologists arrange birds and mammals in an evolutionary tree, they can see some of the steps by which an ancestral tetrapod limb evolved into our arm in one lineage, and into the bird wing in another.

Shubin and his colleagues offer a detailed analysis in their paper of how the intermedium and ulnare in Tiktaalik are homologous to the bones of the same name in tetrapod wrists. Not only do the bones have similar arrangements, but they also allow the limb to bend in a similar way to how the tetrapod wrist bends the hand. They also present evidence for the homology of other bones in Tiktaalik’s limb to the tetrapod limb. Some bones in the tetrapod limb don’t exist in Tiktaalik’s, and some of the bones that are there are different in some respects–size, and shape, and so on. But the relationship of the bones to each other makes sense if they’re the result of a shared ancestry with tetrapods.

To say that Tiktaalik lacks a wrist because it doesn’t have all of the bones in a tetrapod limb is to misunderstand how evolution works.

Luskin suggests instead it would be easier to make Tiktaalik a forerunner of lungfish. (Lungfish are among the closest living relatives of tetrapods, but our last common ancestor with them lived over 400 million years ago.) “Without trying to force-fit the fin of Tiktaalik into a pre-conceived evolutionary story,” he declares, “the living species that Tiktaalik’s fin seems to bear a much closer relationship to is the lungfish.”

Note the word seems.

If Luskin were offering a real scientific hypothesis, he could do an anlysis of lungfish, Tiktaalik, tetrapods, and other vertebrates–comparing not just their limbs but their heads, spines, and so on to figure out their evolutionary relationships. That’s exactly what Shubin and his colleagues did in their original paper on Tiktaalik. They compared 114 traits on species from nine different lineages of tetrapods and their aquatic relatives, including the lineage that produced today’s lungfish. And that analysis shows that Tiktaalik is more closely related to us than to lungfish.

Luskin apparently doesn’t need to do this sort of science. He can just announce what seems right to him personally.

If this is the sort of stuff that’s used to promote “critical thinking” in Louisiana classrooms, don’t be surprised to hear about the great gravity hoax.

Update: PZ Myers has more.

Jack Kemp Phillis Schlafly: Evolution as Evil Plot

From his latest column:

Liberals see the political value to teaching evolution in school, as it makes teachers and children think they are no more special than animals. Childhood joy and ambition can turn into depression as children learn to reject that they were created in the image of God.

He may not be in office any more, but this piece wins Kemp an honorary spot in the creationist-friendly political pantheon.

Update: Thursday 8/24 Turns out this is the work of the old foe of evolution, Phyllis Schlafly. Kemp’s view on evolution remain a mystery. More here.

They Just Keep Piling On

Governor Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky uses his State of the Commonwealth speech last night to plug intelligent design:

As I close, let me recognize Kentucky’s veterans. You have served to protect our liberty and the freedom that spurs our quality of life in this nation. Please know that this administration is committed to supporting you.

And where does this freedom come from that many have died to protect?

Our founding fathers recognized that we were endowed with this right by our creator.

So I ask, what is wrong with teaching “intelligent design” in our schools. Under KERA, our school districts have that freedom and I encourage them to do so.

This is not a question about faith or religion. It’s about self-evident truth.

Did you know that the Declaration of Independence was a biology textbook?

I’m going to create a new tag for these little entries. I hope I won’t be adding too many more entries to it, but I won’t be surprised if I do. [Update: See under “Our Dear Leaders Speak”]

(Hat tip: Ars Technica)

And Introducing Our Latest Creationism-Friendly Politician, The Governor of Texas!

Rick Perry’s on board! And no postmodern vagueness for him. He’s here to tell us that intelligent design is a “valid scientific theory.” That’s right, governor. Just check out all the work on intelligent design going on in the biology department at your state’s fine university. Um…wait…it’s there somewhere. Just let me figure out how to work this search function…

(Hat tip to Panda’s Thumb.)

More Fun With Our Post-Modern Politicians

Why is it that politicians who say they want to strengthen science teaching standards can sound so post-modern about science? Two examples:

1. John McCain grooving with the kids on MTV about evolution:

“I see no reason why students should not be exposed to all theories, recognizing that Darwin’s theory’s certainly one that is generally accepted in most of the scientific community. I think it’s not inappropriate to say there are also people who believe this. Let the student decide.” [Emphasis mine]

Okay students, we’ve spent our science class this year learning all theories about the universe. We’ve learned about astrology, about the creation tales of the Scythians, and we had a special visit from Mr. Peterson who has been trying to create his own universe in his garage with tin foil and a magnifying lens. I know some of you were not happy that we had to squeeze all of modern astronomy into a ten-minute survey, but it’s hard to fit all theories into a year. But don’t worry about your exam. See, here it is–just one question: “Which theory do you decide is right? Don’t bother to explain why.”

2. Jeb Bush’s Secret:

The governor of Florida has proven hiimself a real pro at hemming and hawing about evolution. In the wake of the Dover decision, Bush was asked by the Miami Herald whether he believes in the theory of evolution.

His response:

`Yeah, but I don’t think it should actually be part of the curriculum, to be honest with you. And people have different points of view and they can be discussed at school, but it does not need to be in the curriculum.”

Okay, students, today we’re going to learn about evolution. Since we couldn’t learn about it at school, we’ve come to the governor’s mansion. Remember, this is all off the record.

[Hat tips to Red State Rabble and Political Animal.

Florida, Where The Living Is Contradictory

When it comes to evolution, the nation’s attention is focused these days on Dover, Pennsylvania, where parents are suing the local board of education for introducing creationism into the classroom. It’s certainly an important case, but if you really want to get a sense of what’s at stake in the struggle over evolution, I suggest you turn your attention south, to the sunshine state. Florida is trying to have it both ways when it comes to creationism, and sooner or later something’s going to have to give.

Two weeks ago, governor Jeb Bush broke ground on what he has called “a defining moment in Florida’s future.” The Scripps Research Institute, one of the world’s premier biomedical institutions, has agreed to build a huge east-coast campus in Palm Beach. Bush and his fellow Florida politicians had lobbied hard for Scripps to come to their state, because they expect it to be a vast economic boon. Thousands of people work at Scripps, investigating everything from regenerating nerve cells to potential cures for AIDS. It gets lots of money from the National Institutes of Health and other sources to pay all those taxpayers. On top of these attractions, Scripps has spun off dozens of start-up biotech companies around its main campus near San Diego. At the same time, it has attracted other companies to set up shop nearby, further vitalizing the southern California economy. Governor Bush hopes that Scripps East will do the same for Florida. It’s predicted to bring over three billion dollars to the community.

It’s a simple fact that when you bring such a leading player in biological research to your state, you bring a major dose of evolution as well. Evolution is part of the foundation of modern biological research, and the work at Scripps is no exception.

For years Scripps has fostered some of the most ambitious investigations of evolution. At the lab of Paul Schimmel, for example, scientists investigate the evolution of the genetic code: the way in which the sequence in our DNA gets translated into proteins. Gerald Joyce and his colleagues investigate the theory that DNA-based life evolved from a simpler precursor some 4 billion years ago. Floyd Romesburg studies how the structures and functions of proteins have evolved over billions of years, using rapidly changing antibodies as a model. While these scientists are trying to understand what happened to life in the distant past, their work is also serving as the seeds for new start-up companies that hope to make money on new kinds of biological molecules.

Evolutionary biology also helps guide medical research at Scripps. Some researchers study how resistance to drugs evolves in HIV and bacteria. Last year scientists made some important progress in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria by discovering how to prevent the microbes from evolving.

Claes Wahlestedt, one of the scientists who will be setting up shop on Scripp’s Florida campus, searches for new drugs by understanding how the human genome evolved. Genes only become active in our cells when certain proteins lock onto small stretches of DNA near them called enhancers. The enhancer bends until it meets up with another piece of DNA called a promoter. That bending acts like a switch, turning on the gene, allowing it to produce a protein. The elements of these switches are very hard to pinpoint in the human genome. That’s because they are very short and are located hundreds or thousands of positions away from the gene they control. Making matters worse, they are usually nestled within long stretches of DNA that don’t appear to serve any function. Finding these switch elements could prove very important to medicine. A mutation to a switch may make people prone to certain diseases or respond poorly to certain medicines.

Wahlestedt is finding these promoters, and it’s evolution he’s using as his guide. He and his colleagues described their approach in an open-access paper published earlier this year in the journal BMC Genomics. They lined up the sequences of human genes with their corresponding genes in mice. They then looked near the genes, in the long sequence of non-coding DNA, searching for short stretches of DNA that were similar in both species. Their reasoning was this: if a piece of non-coding DNA in the common ancestor of humans and mice didn’t serve an important function, it might pick up mutations over time without causing any harm. As a result, most non-coding sequences should be noticeably different in humans and mice, because we share an ancestor that lived some 100 million years ago. But switches probably played a vital role in that common ancestor, and most mutations that struck them would have had a devastating effect. Natural selection should have prevented most of these mutations from becoming fixed in both humans and mice. As a result, parts of DNA involved in switching genes on and off should look very similar in humans and mice, unlike the other non-coding DNA.

Wahlestedt and his colleagues used this method to identify a number of candidate switches. Further tests confirmed that most of them actually did affect the way genes work. And still more tests showed that humans carry different versions of these switches, and that these differences affect the way that these genes make proteins. If Wahlestedt had used creationism as his guide, he’d still be floundering in an ocean of DNA.

In other words, Jeb Bush is bringing evolution into Florida. But you have to wonder if he knows what he’s doing. That’s because in addition to bringing Scripps to Florida, he’s bringing in a creationist to run his schools.

In August, Bush appointed Cheryl Yecke as his state chancellor of K-12 education. In her previous job, Yecke had served as Minnesota’s state education commissioner. A self-proclaimed creationist, she had said she wanted to get science classes to discuss “a higher power creating life alongside evolution.” Major science organizations, such as the American Institute of Biological Sciences were appalled. Yecke lost the post after a year, but Bush decided she was the right woman for the job in Florida.

Yecke has company in the sunshine state. The chair of the state House Education Council favors teaching intelligent design, and recently introduced a bill that he said would allow students to sue their professors if they didn’t consider it in class. Science standards are up for review next year in Florida, and as this article in yesterday’s Palm Beach Post explains, some observers won’t be surprised if a Kansas-style battle erupts.

How does Jeb Bush handle this contradiction? How does he explain simultaneously embracing evolution-based cutting edge biology and hiring a creationist to run his schools? Florida newspapers are discovering that his solution is simply to avoid the issue altogether.

This summer, for example, reporters approached the governor after he attended a meeting about Florida’s science standards. They asked him if intelligent design should be taught. As the Saint Petersburg Times reported in August, he declined to comment. Later, the Times asked his education commissioner, and he declined too.

Last week Bush was asked again about whether he believes, like his brother, that intelligent design belongs in science classes.

“I don’t know…I don’t know,” he said. “It’s not part of our standards. Nor is creationism. Nor is Darwinism or evolution either.”

That’s wrong. Natural selection and other evolutionary processes are part of the science standards. When Bush was informed of this, he blamed his education commissioner for misleading him. ”I like what we have right now,” he added. “And I don’t think there needs to be any changes. I don’t think we need to restrict discussion, but it doesn’t need to be required, either.”

When pressed further about these contradictions, Bush simply clammed up, as the Miami Herald reported yesterday:

“That is so loaded. That’s like, you’ve already written the article, why do you want me in it? It’s not fair,” Bush told a reporter when asked.

So that’s a ”no” then?

”No, that’s nothing,” Bush said. “That’s no comment. The governor refused to comment. That’s what it is in the article: The governor refused to comment.”

It’s possible that Bush is trying to run out the clock before he’s forced to say something coherent about evolution and creationism. After all, his term ends next year, so any fallout from a fight over school standards may just wind up as the next governor’s problem.

Claes Wahlestedt is frankly baffled by the hostility to evolution in his newly adopted home of Florida. “All our work at Scripps gives evidence of the existence of evolution,” he told the Palm Beach Post yesterday.

I don’t know how long Florida will be able to go on this way, trying to attract the biotech industry while its leading state officials try to teach its students that creationism is an equally valid way of understanding life. Sooner or later, something’s got to give.

Update: 10/9 6:30 pm Fixed description of promoters. Thanks to John TImmer for sending me back to my bio textbook.

Bush, Frist…McCain

From an article on how John McCain may be positioning himself for a presidential run in The Arizona Star:

McCain told the Star that, like Bush, he believes “all points of view” should be available to students studying the origins of mankind.

“Available” is a wonderfully vague word.

Senator, Senator, a follow-up question please? Just a clarification? Do you mean that teachers just drop some pamphlets by the door that explain how we were designed by aliens? Or should that be on the final exam?

And Now A Word From the Astronomers…

I’ll close the week with an open letter to President Bush just released by the American Astronomical Society’s president, Prof. Robert Kirschner, to express disappointment with his comments on bringing intelligent design into the classroom. Astronomers may not deal with natural selection or fossils, but as a general principle, they don’t like seeing non-science and science getting confused.

Washington, DC. The American Astronomical Society is releasing the text of a letter concerning “intelligent design” and education that was sent earlier today to President George W. Bush by the President of the Society, Dr. Robert P. Kirshner.

August 5, 2005

The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

As President of the American Astronomical Society, I was very disappointed by the comments attributed to you in an article in the August 2nd, 2005 Washington Post regarding intelligent design. While we agree that “part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought”, intelligent design has neither scientific evidence to support it nor an educational basis for teaching it as science. Your science adviser, John H Marburger III correctly commented that “intelligent design is not a scientific concept.”

Scientific theories are coherent, are based on careful experiments and observations of nature that are repeatedly tested and verified. They aren’t just opinions or guesses. Gravity, relativity, plate tectonics and evolution are all theories that explain the physical universe in which we live. What makes scientific theories so powerful is that they account for the facts we know and make new predictions that we can test. The most exciting thing for a scientist is to find new evidence that shows old ideas are wrong. That’s how science progresses. It is the opposite of a dogma that can’t be shown wrong. “Intelligent design” is not so bold as to make predictions or subject itself to a test. There’s no way to find out if it is right or wrong. It isn’t part of science.

We agree with you that “scientific critiques of any theory should be a normal part of the science curriculum,” but intelligent design has no place in science classes because it is not a “scientific critique.” It is a philosophical statement that some things about the physical world are beyond scientific understanding. Most scientists are quite optimistic that our understanding will grow, and things that seem mysterious today will still be wonderful when they are within our understanding tomorrow. Scientists see gaps in our present knowledge as opportunities for research, not as a cause to give up searching for an answer by invoking the intervention of a God-like intelligent designer.

The schools of our nation have a tough job—and there is no part of their task that is more important than science education. It doesn’t help to mix in religious ideas like “intelligent design” with the job of understanding what the world is and how it works. It’s hard enough to keep straight how Newton’s Laws work in the Solar System or to understand the mechanisms of human heredity without adding in this confusing and non-scientific agenda. It would be a lot more helpful if you would advocate good science teaching and the importance of scientific understanding for a strong and thriving America. “Intelligent design” isn’t even part of science – it is a religious idea that doesn’t have a place in the science curriculum.


Robert P. Kirshner
President, American Astronomical Society
Harvard College Professor and Clowes Professor of Science at Harvard University

55,000 Science Teachers: “Stunned and Disappointed” by the President

A statement from the National Science Teachers’ Association on Bush’s remarks about Intelligent Design:

NSTA Disappointed About Intelligent Design Comments Made by President Bush
2005-08-03 – NSTA

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the world’s largest organization of science educators, is stunned and disappointed that President Bush is endorsing the teaching of intelligent design – effectively opening the door for nonscientific ideas to be taught in the nation’s K-12 science classrooms.

“We stand with the nation’s leading scientific organizations and scientists, including Dr. John Marburger, the president’s top science advisor, in stating that intelligent design is not science. Intelligent design has no place in the science classroom,” said Gerry Wheeler, NSTA Executive Director.

Monday, Knight Ridder news service reported that the President favors the teaching of intelligent design so “so people can understand what the debate is about.”

“It is simply not fair to present pseudoscience to students in the science classroom,” said NSTA President Mike Padilla. “Nonscientific viewpoints have little value in increasing students’ knowledge of the natural world.”

NSTA strongly supports the premise that evolution is a major unifying concept in science and should be included in the K-12 education frameworks and curricula. This position is consistent with that of the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and many other scientific and educational organizations.

43,000 Scientists: Bush Puts Schoolchildren At Risk

The American Geophysical Union just issued a press release in response to Bush’s comments about intelligent design. It’s not online at their web site yet, so I’ve posted it here. (Update: It’s on line now.) This is not the first time that the 43,000 members of the AGU have spoken out against creationism. They protested the sale of a creationist account of the Grand Canyon in National Park Service stores, and condemned the airing of a creationist movie about cosmology at the Smithsonian Institution. But this is the first time they’ve taken on the President.

American Geophysical Union 2 August 2005 AGU Release No. 05-28 For Immediate Release

AGU: President Confuses Science and Belief, Puts Schoolchildren at Risk

WASHINGTON – “President Bush, in advocating that the concept of ?intelligent design’ be taught alongside the theory of evolution, puts America’s schoolchildren at risk,” says Fred Spilhaus, Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union. “Americans will need basic understanding of science in order to participate effectively in the 21st century world. It is essential that students on every level learn what science is and how scientific knowledge progresses.”

In comments to journalists on August 1, the President said that “both sides ought to be properly taught.” “If he meant that intelligent design should be given equal standing with the theory of evolution in the nation’s science classrooms, then he is undermining efforts to increase the understanding of science,” Spilhaus said in a statement. “?Intelligent design’ is not a scientific theory.” Advocates of intelligent design believe that life on Earth is too complex to have evolved on its own and must therefore be the work of a designer. That is an untestable belief and, therefore, cannot qualify as a scientific theory.”

“Scientific theories, like evolution, relativity and plate tectonics, are based on hypotheses that have survived extensive testing and repeated verification,” Spilhaus says. “The President has unfortunately confused the difference between science and belief. It is essential that students understand that a scientific theory is not a belief, hunch, or untested hypothesis.”

“Ideas that are based on faith, including ?intelligent design,’ operate in a different sphere and should not be confused with science. Outside the sphere of their laboratories and science classrooms, scientists and students alike may believe what they choose about the origins of life, but inside that sphere, they are bound by the scientific method,” Spilhaus said.

AGU is a scientific society, comprising 43,000 Earth and space scientists. It publishes a dozen peer reviewed journal series and holds meetings at which current research is presented to the scientific community and the public.