Anti-evolution legislation in New Hampshire

New Hampshire has been disappointing as of late. Here and there I’ve been hearing rumblings of Republicans gearing up to destroy the lives of Granite State gays. Then they put money in the pockets of naturopaths at the expense of the health of their citizens. And now a number of schmucks are getting ready to put forth some anti-science bills:

House Bill 1148, introduced by Jerry Bergevin (R-District 17), would charge the state board of education to “[r]equire evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists’ political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.” House Bill 1457, introduced by Gary Hopper (R-District 7) and John Burt (R-District 7), would charge the state board of education to “[r]equire science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire [sic] results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established, and that scientific and technological innovations based on new evidence can challenge accepted scientific theories or modes.”

Bergevin pulls out what has got to be the most basic creationist canard by implying that a theory is somehow not scientifically sound or established. He’s wrong. See Theory of Gravity for further reference. But as if blatant ignorance wasn’t enough, he then goes and commits a logical fallacy by demanding, in poorly veiled code, that teachers make ad hominem attacks on scientists. It would be risible if it wasn’t so pitiable and contemptible and insensible all at the same time.

Hopper and Burt don’t fair much better. They use the broad concept that accepted science changes with the evidence, but they do so in an obviously sneaky, if superficially acceptable, way. Fortunately they slipped up and showed their hand early:

Although HB 1457 as drafted is silent about “intelligent design,” Hopper’s initial request was to have a bill drafted that would require “instruction in intelligent design in the public schools.”

Surprise, surprise. I guess they must have read Kitzmiller v. Dover after their first draft.

I remember Maine had a very brief flair up a few years ago when some administrator out in East Bumfuck made similar suggestions concerning the teaching of evolution. He quickly learned the value of shutting up in the face of overwhelming evidence he just didn’t understand, but it was still disappointing that the moment wasn’t captured more fruitfully by journalists; no one in the media took the time to pen a short article on why evolution is true and why the administrator was wrong. It wouldn’t have needed to be some in-depth piece, but just something that explained some of the basics (starting with what a theory is since that was at the heart of the issue here). Hell, I’m sure any paper could have gotten an actual biologist to write something for them in under an hour.

I just hope New Hampshire does at least a little bit better than Maine did.

Religion and the fear of death

One of the motivators for religious belief is the comfort it provides. For many people it provides an immediate comfort because it allows one to be a part of a bigger group, and people like to belong. For others, it provides a comfort of ‘knowing’. For instance, we all want to know the answer to a lot of basic questions like “How old is the Earth” and “How did humanity begin”. Religion – while it has either always been wrong or been forced to defer to science in order to be correct (and even then it usually mangles things) – makes strong claims that it has the answers. But for so many others, religion provides comfort against the fear of death. Many of us want to believe we keep on existing, that all we’ve done in our lives has some unending meaning, and maybe ultimately, that we are never alone. It is this final sort of comfort that indirectly forms the basis of some new research:

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Union College (Schenectady, N.Y.) have found that people’s ‘death anxiety’ can influence them to support theories of intelligent design and reject evolutionary theory…

The researchers carried out five studies with 1,674 U.S. and Canadian participants of different ages and a broad range of educational, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds.

In each study, participants were asked to imagine their own death and write about their subsequent thoughts and feelings, or they were assigned to a control condition: imagining dental pain and writing about that.

The participants were then asked to read two similarly styled, 174-word excerpts from the writings of Behe and Dawkins, which make no mention of religion or belief, but describe the scientific and empirical support for their respective positions.

After going through these steps, participants who imagined their own death showed greater support for intelligent design and greater liking for [Michael] Behe, or a rejection of evolution theory coupled with disliking for [Richard] Dawkins, compared to participants in the control condition.

However, the research team saw reversed effects during the fourth study which had a new condition. Along with writings by Behe and Dawkins, there was an additional passage by Carl Sagan. A cosmologist and science writer, Sagan argues that naturalism — the scientific approach that underlies evolution, but not intelligent design — can also provide a sense of meaning. In response, these participants showed reduced belief in intelligent design after being reminded of their own mortality.

While it was creationism intelligent design that was chosen for this experiment, I see this study as representative of religion at large. When shown two different arguments, a sizable portion of the participants clearly chose to reject evolution on the basis that it provided them with no sense of meaning. It isn’t particularly relevant that the alternative was specifically creationism intelligent design since there is no science to be found within any religious idea anyway – nor is there any science supporting any religious claim of significance. Any relatively mainstream religious idea could have been presented in science-y terms – just as creationism intelligent design is – and then used as a tool for comparison.

This isn’t all to say that the primary motivator for religious belief is the fear of death. I suspect it’s actually culture and upbringing – the biggest indicator of what one’s religion will be is what his or her parent’s religion is. But the fear of death – the fear of the unknown – frightens people and makes them uncomfortable. Religion helps to ease that discomfort with its made-up stories and fairy tales, and so it acts as a tightly woven net that catches people before they can fall into reason or even momentary consideration of their beliefs.

While the results of this study are obvious (and while they will be distorted by believers), I think there is another interesting point here, albeit an obvious one. There are a lot of accomodationists (Collins, Giberson, Miller, etc) out there who will argue that religion and science are compatible. While their position is one that is in some ways a small improvement over the current situation, there is comfort in the fact that they aren’t winning over too many adherents. People still recognize that evolution does largely eliminate their particular, cultural god. The fact that we know humans were not inevitable (or any other animal, for that matter) means that most of the gods in which people believe are untenable. That is, the sort of gods people praise are almost always the ones that deemed the inevitably of humanity. That inevitably takes away the random components of life and gives credence to why a god would care about us at all. I think the recognition that evolution takes this all away is ultimately good because it shows that while these people do not understand evolution in its details, they do understand its implications. That is a good thing – even if they falsely associate those implications with a lack of meaning in life.

Source

Expected distortions

Michael Behe recently had a paper published in The Quarterly Review of Biology, a non-creationist journal. Here is Jerry Coyne’s conclusion:

Behe has provided a useful survey of mutations that cause adaptation in short-term lab experiments on microbes (note that at least one of these—Rich Lenski’s study— extends over several decades). But his conclusions may be misleading when you extend them to bacterial or viral evolution in nature, and are certainly misleading if you extend them to eukaryotes (organisms with complex cells), for several reasons:

Go to Professor Coyne’s site for the whole review.

It’s all fair enough and no one is really up in arms about Behe’s paper itself. But isn’t it interesting how quickly the creationist intelligent design crowd started distorting the facts?

Over at the intelligent-design site Uncommon Descent, the ever befuddled Denyse O’Leary has already glommed onto the review I wrote yesterday of Michael Behe’s new paper. And, exactly as I predicted, she distorts Behe’s conclusions:

So, not only must the long, slow process of Darwinian evolution create every exotic form of life in the blink of a geological eye, but it must do so by losing or modifying what a life form already has.

In other words, she’s extended Behe’s conclusions, based on viral and bacterial evolution in the lab, to evolution of “every exotic form of life” on the planet. This is exactly what one cannot do with Behe’s conclusions.

It really isn’t a surprise that this happened; Creationists are always distorting scientific papers – and specifically so they can prop up their religious beliefs. I’m just impressed with the utter accuracy of Professor Coyne’s prediction.

This distortion is hardly news, of course—I’m completely confident that Behe not only expected it, but approves of it—but I feel compelled to highlight it once again. Luskin’s three distortions, which correspond to the three caveats attached to Behe’s results:

1. Luskin doesn’t mention that Behe’s analysis concentrated only on short-term laboratory studies of adaptation in bacteria and viruses.

2. Luskin also doesn’t mention that these experiments deliberately excluded an important way that bacteria and viruses gain new genetic elements in nature: through horizontal uptake of DNA from other organisms. This kind of uptake was prohibited by the design of the experiments.

3. Luskin implies that Behe’s conclusions extend to all species, including eukaryotes, even though we know that members of this group (and even some bacteria) can gain new genetic elements and information via gene duplication and divergence. And we know that this has happened repeatedly and pervasively in the course of evolution.

About an hour ago I finished up my last assignment for this semester, and man, it’s always a relief when that special moment arrives. But after reading this creationist intelligent design proponent garbage, I’m already getting antsy to go back and continue with my legitimate education.

The early days of intelligent design

Thought of the day

Creationism Intelligent design is based almost entirely upon a faulty analogy.

Six year old boy debunks ID

There’s a wonderful post over at Atheist Nexus about a father teaching his son the facts of life as well as a few creation myths. It’s a good example of how necessary it is to tell kids all the basics in science (and especially biology) at a young age. Give them the facts first and they tend to laugh when they’re told all the silly things (young and old Earth) creationists believe.

I had been spending so much time teaching him about evolution by natural selection that I forgot to tell him the lie he would be confronted with someday. Just a few weeks ago I had asked him what evolution was. He responded by saying, “It’s a gradual change in species that happens slowly over really long periods of time.” I couldn’t hope for a better answer from him. Talk about a proud poppa moment; almost made me cry.

I decided that it was time that he heard the creation story that I grew up with. I hopped on the internet and googled “childrens creation story.” In .2 seconds I was greeted with 2,230,000 results to choose from. I chose the top one from dltk-Bible.com. As soon as I got to “Let there be light,” he started giggling. By the time I got to the morning of the third day he was laughing quite a bit.

I read on, “So, he put all the water in one place and all the dry land in another.” He stopped laughing instantly so I asked him, “What?”

“Why do we have to save water then? Wouldn’t God make enough for everybody?” he asked. I smiled and nodded just a bit before reading on.

After I finished reading about the third day he was beginning to catch on. “So God made everything?” he asked.

“Well that’s what some people believe,” I stated, “but I don’t think so.” This sent him into hysterics.

“He made South America!” I wasn’t sure why this was so funny to him but he continued to laugh and list the things that God had “made.” Squirrels, Dr. Seuss, and cat butts had him laughing especially hard. “Doesn’t he have any brains? Cause he made some weird stuff in this world.” A six year old debunks Intelligent Design with a simple observational idea that ID proponents can’t even grasp. That had me chuckling for a moment before I read on.

When I told him about the creation of the sun on the fourth day he became serious again. He wrinkled up one eye and stated matter-of-factly, “Light has to be from the sun.” And I thought I was the only one in the room that would have a problem with light being created three days before the sun. My six year old was quickly demonstrating that he was a better critical thinker than people who believe the creation story.

Goodness, gracious. I can only hope to have a child this intelligent and insightful one day. I can’t help but imagine just how embarrassed I would feel going up against him if I was an IDiot.

The fundamentally dishonest creationist intelligent design crowd is always whining about not being given equal time and blah blah blah. But the fact of the matter is, these people don’t give a shit about a presentation of evidence – if they did, they wouldn’t be promoting creationism. They want to obfuscate sound science so that children will harbor unwarranted doubts; when those children grow up and realize that they will some day die, it is the hope of the IDiots that they will seek comfort in religion (and, very specifically, Christianity). After all, it was the combination of indoctrination and fear of death that motivated most IDiots to where they are.

I’ll give the final word to the young boy.

“I think the scientists are correct and the other guy sounds crazy. I think I want to be a scientist when I grow up and study water, animals, and space.” What an amusing array of choices. I had to inquire about them. “I want to find out where the water came from, for real, and dig up animal bones and put them together.”

“What about space?”

“I want to go there…”

Thought of the day

Intelligent design is fundamentally dishonest.