Archive for May, 2007

Just what do we want from the liberal media anyway?

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

When the horrifying Creation Museum opened a few days ago, science bloggers responded with a pro-science carnival, edited and organized by champion advocate for rationality PZ Myers. Not surprisingly, a lot of the bloggy attention focused not just on the Creation Museum itself, but on coverage of it in the mainstream media. New to blogging but old to science, and thoroughly, deeply, proudly embedded in the furious set of sane-minded folk who hate the efforts of Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis, the fundamentalist Christian group sponsoring the museum, I was pretty surprised to find myself disagreeing with the other evolution bloggers.

What do we want from mainstream media? (You know, the liberal media, the media that report the facts.) Do we want truth, or do we want passion?

Two mainstream articles on the Creation Museum that have received critical attention from science bloggers include the May 24 NY Times article and today’s Salon article. Both have received heavy thumping for “softball,” “credulous” reporting that “could have been written by Ken Ham himself.” But in the articles, the journalists make it clear that the Creation Museum directly challenges established scientific facts and promotes a specific, biblically literal agenda. So what don’t the articles do, according to their science critics? In a response I left in Evolution Blog’s comments section, I wrote that they don’t convey outrage:

Is it necessarily a bad thing for a reporter to give such a factual account of a news event that people from both sides of the spectrum find it essentially truthful? (Although in fairness this probably isn’t the case—I disagree that “Those paragraphs could have been written by Ken Ham himself” and obviously you are unhappy with this report.)

It’s an interesting problem. I stand by my position that reporting bald facts can be the most powerful method of revealing truth. These articles don’t passionately defend established science, they simply reference it without equivocation. The Times‘ description of this museum as “a kind of relief” for some people, “without the distortions of secularism and natural selection” is an effective way of conveying that our culture is undergoing a terrible polarization, which is one of the most important facts the article reports. Tinged with outrage, an article can lose credibility—and maybe it should. But an article that incites outrage with facts—that’s effective journalism.

Thanks for asking

Saturday, May 26th, 2007

“Are there any technological advances that have been made because of a belief in evolution?”

pig.jpgSo asks an essay published by Answers in Genesis, an organization promoting their soon-to-open Creation Museum. The museum directly challenges modern scientific understanding, so Answers in Genesis is justifiably concerned that the enterprise may be seen as “anti-science.” Their response to this concern includes the same empty rhetoric that evolution-deniers have been trotting out for ages: evolution isn’t relevant, because none of the scientific technologies of our time have anything to do with evolution.

Nonsense, of course. In medicine alone, the case for the importance of evolution has been made again, again, again and again. But why not have another go at it? This week in PNAS, researchers describe how they tracked the evolution of a deadly Staphylococcus bacterial strain in a single patient using genomics technology. The problem of antibiotic resistance and how it evolves is old news, but unfortunately it remains both grave and immediate. But that’s what’s so exciting about this article, which demonstrates a method of identifying adaptations in bacterial strains evolving in real time in real patients. By characterizing the pathogen as it mutated, these scientists were able to determine which new changes increased its lethality. Now, other Staphylococcus strains can be screened in other patients to predict how they will respond to antibiotic therapies, potentially increasing patient survivorship and constraining evolution of antibiotic resistance.

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Opening of unnatural history museum

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

On May 28, the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky will officially open. The museum co-opts the frozen-in-time, diorama style of actual factual natural history museums to portray cohabitation of prehistoric humans and “thunder-lizards,” according to an article in today’s New York Times. But that may be the least excruciating distortion of reality this museum showcases. According to the article, the exhibits portray a timeline of events succeeding Adam and Eve’s fall in the garden of Eden, including modern-day catastrophes that have resulted from increasing secularization. The message is pretty clear:

Start accepting evolution or an ancient Earth, and the result is like the giant wrecking ball, labeled “Millions of Years,” that is shown smashing the ground at the foundation of a church, the cracks reaching across the gallery to a model of a home in which videos demonstrate the imminence of moral dissolution. A teenager is shown sitting at a computer; he is, we are told, looking at pornography.

The Times article shows little restraint in discrediting the museum and describing its efforts as a troubling departure from reason. But I can’t resist criticizing one niggling detail: journalist Edward Rothstein writes that, contrary to the biblical creationism story exhibited by the museum, scientists assert “that life’s diversity is the result of evolution by natural selection.” Well, yes, many scientists do assert that life’s diversity is the result of natural selection. But that’s a problem in its own right, addressed in my most recent post about Michael Lynch’s recent PNAS paper. Lynch explains that biologists too often attribute phenomena like genome complexity—or taxonomic diversity—to natural selection, and overlook the importance of stochastic processes in evolution. It may seem too fine-grain a point among evolutionists who agree that the larger battle is over whether evolution is accepted at all. But misunderstanding the knowledge that science research provides is dangerous in itself, especially in an intellectual battle for hearts and minds.

Nothing in evolution makes sense except in light of population genetics

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

zebra.jpgEvolutionary biologist Michael Lynch has published a paper in PNAS this month in which he takes to task scientists in general, and evolutionary biologists in particular, for interpreting “virtually every aspect of biodiversity in adaptive terms.” His language is aggressive: he throws around words like “untenable” and likens the tendency of biologists to dramatize the power of natural selection to the invocation of an intelligent designer. At the end, he writes, “This tone of dissent is not meant to be disrespectful.” Given that he has specifically criticized some of his colleagues, it’s inevitable that some will be offended. But I love this paper, I’m thrilled it’s out there, and I hope it’s making a big splash.

For those interested in my wee little opinion, here’s why:

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The Chronicle of Higher Education on Gonzalez

Monday, May 21st, 2007

Today The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about astronomy professor and intelligent design advocate Guillermo Gonzalez’s tenure rejection at Iowa State University. Opening line of the article:

At first glance, it seems like a clear-cut case of discrimination.

I’m surprised by this position and the word “discrimination” is inflammatory. Legally, of course, discrimination is unlawful. Candidates for tenure can’t be denied based on race or gender, for example, under federal law. Iowa State’s own faculty handbook makes it clear that it doesn’t discriminate based on race, color, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, sex, marital status, disability, or status as a U.S. Vietnam Era Veteran. But can someone be denied tenure based on advocacy for intelligent design? Is that discrimination against religion, or discrimination against ideas that fall outside the merits under review?

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Encyclopedia of Life launched

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

The Encyclopedia of Life project, which intends to eventually “serve as an online reference source and database for every one of the 1.8 million species that are named and known on this planet,” was officially launched this month. The project is a collaboration between multiple institutions, including the Field Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, the Marine Biological Laboratory, the Smithsonian, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It’s also impressively funded with $10 million from the MacArthur Foundation and $2.5 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

There’s not much up on the site yet, but here’s a screenshot of one of their demonstration pages:

eolscreenshot1.jpg

Biologists Daniel Janzen (University of Pennsylvania) and E.O. Wilson (Harvard University) are credited with conceiving this project. I’ll try to talk to Dan Janzen this week because I’d love to get more deets on it.

Willard for president-elect of school board organization

Saturday, May 19th, 2007

The National Association of State Boards of Education is a not-for-profit, Washington DC-based organization which supports the nation’s State Boards of Education by organizing study groups, publishing a quarterly journal and generally making available to policymakers information on education research and analysis. Kenneth Willard, a member of the Kansas School Board who worked to mandate the teaching of intelligent design in Kansas schools, is running unopposed in the July election for president-elect.

According to a New York Times article published today, Willard’s opponent backed out of the election for personal reasons and the period for nominations has closed. Proponents of science education in schools hope that someone like Sam Schloemer, a member of the Ohio State Board of Education who has offered to serve as president-elect, may win the seat nonetheless through write-ins.

Each state gets one vote in the upcoming election. Click here to see a list of the chairs of the State Boards of Education, and write to your representative!

Flock of Dodos showing tonight

Thursday, May 17th, 2007

Reminder: Randy Olson‘s Flock of Dodos documentary is airing tonight at 8:30 PM EST on Showtime.

If you’ve got cable TV, invite me over and I’ll bring popcorn.

Everyday example of evolution

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

pests.jpgA graduate student of evolutionary biology at UC Berkeley corrected columnist Pam Peirce today in her weekly gardening column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Peirce had originally described an insect pest as “developing” a resistance to pesticides, but the correct term is “evolve.” The difference: both describe change, but development is change over an organism’s lifetime while evolution is change over generations, in this case in response to environmental pressure. (A more complete explanation of how evolution is change and how this terminology can be used can be found here.)

The correction tidily dispenses with a common blurring of concepts. Evolution of pesticide resistance is an everyday example of natural selection, one obviously well established in the popular imagination. It’s satisfying to see the practical importance of understanding the process, even if it comes as a correction.

Darwin digitalized

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

BBC News reports that the Darwin Correspondence project will make nearly 5,000 letters in their collection accessible online tomorrow. Based at the University of Cambridge, the project has been collecting and publishing letters to and from Charles Darwin since 1974. They’ve published 15 volumes of Darwin’s letters as books, and an agreement with the publisher will allow online access to digital copies of the correspondence four years after hard copy publication.

This project complements Darwin Online, an independent project also based at the University of Cambridge. Darwin Online has made writings by and about Charles Darwin available since 2002, and also includes downloadable audio files and 45,000 images.