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Friday, January 23, 2009

Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards

TEA LogoMan, this is frustrating. There's been quite a bit of discussion recently over a small phrase in the current Texas science standards, whether to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. I wrote a blog entry specifically about that language, as well as several related entries about the Board of Education (election results, teach 'both' sides, review panel, shenanigans, and Chris Comer). Basically, I considered this a rather small issue - the language has been on the books for over a decade, it doesn't explicitly call for teaching creationsim, and competent teachers are going to teach science well, anyway. The only problem is that it opens a loophole for incompetent teachers to bring up bogus claims.

Well, with as much as people have concentrated on the "strengths and weaknesses" language, it seemed like a victory when the board voted (7-7) to keep the draft standards recommend by the expert panel of scientists and teachers, which instead used the language, "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing". However, that sense of victory was very short lived, when Don McLeroy managed to get language inserted into the standards questioning the very concept of common descent. See Steve Schafersman's post or the Texas Freedom Network's post for more details.

I had sent an e-mail to Gail Lowe hoping to influence her decision as one of her constituents. Unfortunately, I don't think I had any effect, as she was one of the seven on the creationist side in all these votes. I'll keep on writing her for the final vote this March.

For anyone interested, my e-mail is included below the fold.

Mrs. Lowe,

I am a resident of Wichita Falls, and as such, you are my representative on the Board of Education. I am also a parent, and thus have a keen interest in the quality of our schools. I am writing you regarding the upcoming vote on the state science standards.

The science standards cover a wide range of issues, which are all very important, but obviously, there has been a lot of discussion over the specific issue of evolution. An expert panel of teachers and scientists had issued revised standards back in September of 2008 that were applauded by science advocacy groups. The third draft, just released, has also been recognized as a good set of standards. Please, listen to the experts and keep these good standards.

You were quoted in an issue of Texas Monthly as saying, "The National Academy of Sciences has still stated that [evolution] is not a fact, and we don’t believe evolution ought to be taught as a fact." Perhaps Texas Monthly misrepresented you, or perhaps you were misinformed on the matter at the time, but the actual position of the National Academy of Sciences is that evolution is both fact and theory. Consider the following statement from the summary of their 2008 report, Science, Evolution and Creationism (available online at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11876):

"Scientists no longer question the basic facts of evolution as a process. The concept has withstood extensive testing by tens of thousands of specialists in biology, medicine, anthropology, geology, chemistry, and other fields. Discoveries in different fields have reinforced one another, and evidence for evolution has continued to accumulate for 150 years."

I could go on at length listing scientific organizations and agencies that have issued similar statements endorsing evolution, but that would only serve to make this letter longer than most people would care to read. Rather, I'll direct you to the following page on the website of the National Center for Science Education, which does list such statements:

Similarly, I could go on at length describing all the evidence supporting evolution - both the fact of common descent with modification, and the various theories describing how evolution happens. Instead, I'll point out sources where you can find this information. A very good book that deals with paleontological evidence for evolution and contrasts it specifically against creationism is Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. In addition to the NAS report above, a few very informative websites include:

Discussing "strengths and weaknesses" or "strengths and limitations" of scientific theories may seem noble. After all, science is not a dogmatic acceptance of the teachings of your mentors - it's all about questioning the world around you and looking for evidence. However, if teachers and school districts use such language as an opening to try to discredit evolution, geology, astronomy, etc., by teaching the arguments of numerous creationists that have been rebutted many times over, then we're definitely doing our children a disservice. These arguments have been recycled so often that Mark Isaak was able to compile an "Index to Creationist Claims," listing rebuttals with sources:

I hesitate to bring up the legal issues involved with the teaching of evolution, because for the science standards we should simply be concerned with teaching our children the best science that we can, which evolution most certainly is, and raising other points seems a bit of a distraction. However, it cannot be ignored that when other states have provided openings to allow the teaching of creationism and the related intelligent design, it has resulted in costly court battles. Consider the Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover trial in Pennsylvania, the Selman et al. v. Cobb County School District et al. trial in Georgia, or perhaps most relevant considering the "strengths and limitations" language that has been discussed, the Rodney LeVake v. Independent School District 656, et al. trial in Minnesota. These types of battles are completely unnecessary, as they could be avoided entirely simply by keeping science classes limited to well founded science.

One last thing I want to bring up, is to express my gratitude for the work you do as a member of the Board of Education. I realize that the Board of Education seldom makes headlines except in cases of controversy, and that the work you do is necessary to support our education system. So thank you for your service.

Please, support sound science education. Do not open up our schools to the types of pseudoscience that could damage our children's education, or result in court trials costing us taxpayers unnecessary money.

Jeffrey R. Lewis

Friday, January 16, 2009

Life on Mars

My Favorite MartianThis news has already made it around practically all of the science blogosphere, and I even saw it mentioned in a special breaking news type segment on the Science Channel last night, but it's so cool that I can't resist commenting on it.

NASA just announced that they've definitively found methane on Mars. This is the first time they've been positive - previous announcements of methane were tentative, requiring more examination of the evidence. Since methane gets broken down very quickly in the Martian atmosphere (through as yet unknown mechanisms), finding methane means it must have been released into the atmosphere fairly recently. From what I've been able to gather, there are three likely sources for this methane:

  1. Biology This is most exciting possibility, that living organisms beneath the Martian permafrost are creating the methane as waste.
  2. Geochemical While I don't find this quite as exciting as life, it would mean that Mars is still geologically active. There are several processes that this could be.
  3. Reservoir In other words, there's no current process producing new methane. It was previously generated either biologically or geochemically (or both), and became trapped, and all we're witnessing now are periodic leaks.

I'm trying to be reserved about this, since NASA got my hopes up before with the announcement of probable fossil microbes in a Martian meteorite, which turned out to be not as probable as they'd initially thought. It still could be microbe fossils, but it could also be from non-biological sources along with Earthly contamination. So, I'm trying not to get too excited about this announcement.

But, if the methane does turn out to be from biological origin, it means we've found aliens! Granted, life on Mars may be little green slime instead of little green men, but it would still be extraterrestrial life. From Carl Zimmer's blog coverage of the news conference, there were a few statements that do seem to indicate that biology is the most likely source of this methane.

2:18 Mumma points out that if volcanoes were making the methane, you’d expect other gases too, which they don’t see. NASA will look for other things that would be consistent with biology.
2:21 Mumma is explaining some of the backstory–first reports of observations were in 2003. We knew we had methane since late 2003, he says. But they’ve been working to make the data “unassailable.” We’ll see…
2:35 Back to the science: Lisa Pratt says methane from rock (serpentinization) is rare on Earth and actually plugs up active sites. This is why she takes biology seriously as “slightly more plausible.”

There are two possibilities I can think of for this life (if it does indeed turn out to be life):

  1. uses DNA or RNA
  2. uses something else

If the microbes use DNA or RNA, then it would seem extremely likely that they have a common ancestor with life here on Earth. From what I've read, scientists think it's more likely that life would have originated here on Earth, and then got transferred somehow to Mars. Though it's still possible that it went in the other direction - life originating on Mars and then seeding Earth.

If the microbes don't use DNA or RNA, then it would seem most likely that they originated independently from the life here on Earth. Now that would be super exciting. For one, it would mean that life probably is fairly common in the universe, and that we're not all alone. Heck, if so many solar systems have life, then other multicellular and intelligent life out there seems much more likely, maybe even other technologically inclined organisms capable of producing civilizations. However, it will be a long time before we can look into those possibilities. But, the possibility of independent life on Mars is exciting for another reason - it would show us another strategy for life to take. It would start to show what types of things common to life on Earth are that way because they're needed for life, or simply because of historical contingency.

This really is some of the most exciting news I've heard in a while. Now we just have to wait to see what the actual source turns out to be.

Further Reading:

Added 2009-01-19 Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy Blog has finally weighed in on this topic. He's very reserved about the whole thing, stressing that we don't know exactly what's creating the methane, and that we just need to wait for more data. He also criticizes much of the media for over hyping the biology aspect of the story.

Revised 2009-02-13 to added the statement "(if it does indeed turn out to be life)." That section's been bugging me ever since I first posted this - I should have edited that a while ago.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Darwin Year Events in Dallas

Charles Darwin as a Young ManI wrote an e-mail to the Dallas Museum of Nature & Science asking them about Darwin Year events. Since the events don't seem to be advertised very prominently on the museum's site, I'll post their response here:

Hi Jeff. We are going to host two events. Cocktails with Charles on his actual birthday 2/12 and cupcakes with Charles on Saturday 2/14. The Thursday event is for adults only and the Saturday event is for families.

I don't think I'll make the two hour drive to to Dallas just for cocktails or cupcakes, but if I just happen to be visiting my wife's family that weekend...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My Atheism and My Family

I'm an atheist, but I haven't always been one. My "deconversion" was a process that began around 3 1/2 years ago, and took over a year to be more or less complete.

The process began in earnest in an attempt to reconcile the Bible with the actual history of the planet as revealed through geology and biology. I'd just recently learned how many people were creationists (prior to that, I'd naively thought most people accepted evolution and the ancient age of the Earth), and at the time Intelligent Design was making big headlines. It made me wonder if I was being a bad Christian for not taking the Bible at face value. Well, the evidence for evolution and an ancient Earth are so overwhelming that there's really no doubt over them, so I vainly thought I'd be able to write a convincing essay showing how the Bible could be interpreted figuratively and still be accepted as true. However, by the time I'd finished researching the essay, I realized that the Bible couldn't have been divinely inspired. I didn't give up Christianity all at once with that realization, but it was a big first step, and within another year or two, I'd basically become an atheist. Obviously, there was a lot more to the process than just realizing that Genesis wasn't accurate, but that's not the point of this essay, so I won't bore the reader with those details (see here or here for more details, if you're interested).

It was around 6 years ago that I met the woman who was to become my wife. At the time, she was the one having doubts. Since I was still a good Christian then, I did a good job of telling her apologetics and getting her to start going back to church again. I was even the one who insisted that we get married in a church. Consider that it was only a few years later that I so thoroughly reversed my views, and you can imagine that she felt a bit mislead.

This period is also when I took on the responsibility of becoming a father. In fact, once I began having doubts about my religion, this responsibility was one of the main things that drove me to research the issue further - how could I teach my daughter things that I wasn't sure of myself? At first, being a good Christian, there was no question on how to address religion with her - respect everybody's views, but Christianity was the true religion. But once I started having my own doubts, things weren't so easy. I want her to think for herself, and I don't want to indoctrinate her into any particular view like I was into Christianity. So, I'm extremely sensitive to pointing out to her that she's going to have to decide these things for herself. (When I was partway through my deconversion and still considered myself a deist, I wrote about this in a series of e-mails with another non-Christian parent. Some of what I'm writing here I brought up in that essay, but they're still tough issues.)

My daughter goes with one of her friends to her friend's church every Wednesday night - kind of like Sunday school, except, well, on Wednesdays. So in addition to me trying to teach her about various religions, she gets to hear about Christianity from actual believers. The thing is, without that strong pressure from parents to accept Christianity, it's not an easy thing for kids to swallow, especially when they're being raised with a respect for science. I don't mean to say that religion and science are necessarily antithetical - plenty of scientists are religious, and plenty of religious people reconcile their beliefs with what we learn through science - but science teaches you to question everything and look for evidence. In that sense, faith just doesn't cut it.

Perhaps what I worry about with her the most is that she'll say the wrong thing to the wrong person. Kids can be mean (and when it comes down to it, so can adults). With the strong emotions that religion can elicit, I worry how others would react if she were to say that her father was an atheist, or even if she decided that she herself didn't believe in God. To be honest, it was such an incident that got me to write this entry to begin with. At one of her extracurricular activities, she got into an argument with a boy over whether someone had to believe in God to be a good person, and he gave her a hard time until my wife got there at the normal time to pick her up. I don't want my daughter to have to go through things like that. I don't want to live vicariously through her and have her fighting religious battles simply because I'm an atheist. But at the same time, I don't want to lie to her just to make her life easier.

In The God Delusion, one of the points that Richard Dawkins makes is that we shouldn't call children Christian, or Muslim, or atheist, or anything of the sort. Children are still too young to have given these issues enough thought, and we shouldn't classify them based on their parents' beliefs. Oh, if that were only the case! Unfortunately, it seems to me as if freethinkers are about the only ones who think this way, and the religious have no problem applying such classifications. A part of me asks why I have to be so damn sensitive to pointing out everybody else's beliefs, when almost everybody else simply teaches their kids their own beliefs as the truth.

Sometimes, I almost wish that I hadn't started to question religion at all. Things would be so much simpler. I wouldn't have to worry about how people would treat my family if they found out my beliefs. I wouldn't question what worldview to teach my daughter, and fret over whether I was raising her properly (at least on this specific topic - I'm pretty sure parents always fret over their children). I wouldn't have to worry about her being discriminated against for simply repeating something she might overhear me say. I wouldn't feel like I had betrayed my wife.

But now that I have questioned religion, there's no going back. I didn't simply choose to be an atheist. I studied all the evidence I could find, initially in an attempt to become a better Christian, and atheism was the unavoidable conclusion. I could no more choose to go back to being a Christian than I could choose to go back to believing in Santa Claus, or choose to believe that the Earth is flat. I opened Pandora's Box, and it can't be closed again.

Website Update - Top 10 Page List Updated for December

Top 10 ListI'm a couple weeks getting to this, but here it is - the most popular pages from my site for last month. I think this is the first month since I've started keeping track that everything that made the list for the previous month made it back to the list the following month, though there was definitely some shuffling around.

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  4. Programming
  5. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  7. X-Plane, UDP, and Visual Basic, for X-Plane version 8
  8. Theoretical Max Propeller Efficiency
  9. X-Plane as an Engineering Tool
  10. Blog - Golden Compass - A Surprise at the Bookstore

List for Previous Months

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Another Similarity Between Osiris & Jesus

OsirisIn my essay, Abadoning Christianity, I briefly discuss some similarities between Osiris and Jesus. I quoted E.A. Wallis Budge, from his introduction to his translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (starting on page li),

This is the story of the sufferings and death of Osiris as told by Plutarch. Osiris was the god through whose suffering and death the Egyptians hoped that his body might rise again in some transformed or glorified shape, and to him who had conquered death and had become the king of the other world the Egyptian appealed in prayer for eternal life through his victory and power. In every funeral inscription known to us, from the pyramid texts down to the roughly-written prayers upon coffins of the Roman period, what is done for Osiris is done also for the deceased, the state and condition of Osiris are the state and condition of the deceased; in a word, the deceased is identified with Osiris. If Osiris liveth for ever, the deceased will live for ever; if Osiris dieth, then will the deceased perish.

Later in the XVIIIth, or early in the XIXth dynasty, we find Osiris called 'the king of eternity, the lord of everlastingness, who traverseth millions of years in the duration of his life, the firstborn son of the womb of Nut, begotten of Seb, the prince of gods and men, the god of gods, the king of kings, the lord of lords, the prince of princes, the governor of the world, from the womb of Nut, whose existence is everlasting, Unnefer of many froms and of many attributes, Tmu in Annu, the lord of Akert, the only one, the lord of the land on each side of the celestial Nile.'

In that essay, I wrote, "The first paragraph above, shows the similarity in roles of Osiris and Jesus - that through their resurrection humans can attain eternal life. The second paragraph shows the similarity in how they are addressed in literature, although it would be easy to see how these lofty praises could be addressed to any powerful figure. At any rate, seeing some of the important traits of Jesus in a mythical figure that predates him, does call into question the source of those concepts in Christianity."

Well, I'm currently re-reading The Egyptian Book of the Dead (I meant to be finished before my visit to the King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs Exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, but it's taking me a bit longer than I'd hoped). I just noticed another similarity between Osiris and Jesus (page cxxxviii).

It is to be noticed how closely the deceased is identified with Osiris, the type of incorruptibility. Osiris takes upon himself "all that is hateful" in the dead : that is, he adopts the burden of his sins; and the dead is purified by the typical sprinkling of water.

So, it's not only through Osiris's resurrection that the Egyptians thought they could attain eternal life, but they even envisioned Osiris as performing a function very similar to forgiving them of their sins.

And now that I'm through with Budge's introduction and actually getting into the Book of the Dead itself, I found an interesting passage right in the first chapter.

Thine enemy[8] is given to the (10) fire, the evil one hath fallen; his arms are bound, and his legs hath Ra taken from him. The children of (11) impotent revolt shall never rise up again.

[8 The enemy of Ra was darkness and night, or any cloud which obscured the light of the sun. The darkness personified was Apep, Nak, etc., and his attendant fiends were the mesu betesh, or 'children of unsuccessful revolt.']

So, here's a passage that sounds suspiciously like Lucifer's unsuccesful revolt from the Bible, and a subsequent banishing into a realm of fire. Although, I have a feeling that revolts against the primary deity are pretty common in mythology.

Just as a note on this, as I wrote in that essay, be careful if you plan to research this subject further. That's probably good advice for anything you plan to research, whether the old fashioned way or on the Internet, but I've found many oversimplified lists of the similarities between Christiany and previous religions that don't seem to be entirely accurate.

For further information, Budge's translation of & introduction to the book of the dead can be found here. Another online version with pictures can be found here.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy Darwin Year

Charles Darwin as a Young ManSince 2009 marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth, as well as the 150th anniversary (sesquicentennial) of the publication of On the Origin of Species, many groups have decided that 2009 should be Darwin Year. So, to kick off the year, here are a couple links to good sites dealing with Darwin.

  • Nature's Darwin 200 The prestigious journal has put together a collection of articles, editorials, news stories, and various other essays and features that have to do with evolution in general or Darwin in particular.
  • The Darwin 200 Consortium Hosted by London's Natural History Museum, this site also has a collection of info on evolution, as well as info about upcoming events to celebrate Darwin Year.
  • DarwinDay.org Another good site with evolutionary info. The events on this site are mostly on or around Darwin Day, February 12th.
  • American Museum of Natural History's Darwin page Yet another good collection of information. This is from the exhibit that ran in the museum from 2005 to 2006.

To give a short taste of the Nature site, they've made freely available, and even encouraged dissemination of (so sharing it here is perfectly legal), an article on 15 Evolutionary Gems, collecting information from articles published in the journal "over the past decade or so to illustrate the breadth, depth and power of evolutionary thinking."

Don't forget to check with your own local museums. Even if they don't have any special events scheduled for Darwin Year, they're always fun to visit, anyway.

Added 2009-01-02 Well, I figure that for the kick off to Darwin Year I might as well post links to the previous posts I've made on evolution or Darwin. If I happen to post anything else on the subject during this year, I'll try to remember to update this list.

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