Skepticism, Religion Archive

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dinosaur World's Dishonesty

Dinosaur WorldThis has already made it around the skeptical blogosphere, but it's interesting for the people that might not have heard it, yet.

The company, Dinosaur World, runs three roadside attractions - one in Plant City, Florida, one in Cave City, Kentucky, and one in Glen Rose, Texas. Just this past weekend, I saw the billboards for the Glen Rose one on a trip to drop my daughter off at a Girl Scout camp down the road, so this story has some personal interest to me. The attractions are life size dinosaur replicas, with a bit of information about the dinosaurs, a small museum, and a gift shop. Here's a picture from their website to give you an idea of what the place is like.

Theropod Dinosaur on Grounds of Dinosaur World

Now, there's nothing particularly noteworthy about any of that. It's the type of campy road side attraction that people have come to expect in America, and there are similar attractions all over the nation. What makes this story interesting is the blog post that appeared on their website this past Monday.

Educational information at Dinosaur World

At Dinosaur World, we present interesting facts about each dinosaur. Examples include, what they ate and unique charactaristics of each. However, we do have many books in the giftshop including information on creationism. Below is an example.

Why is so little known about dinosaurs? Despite all the new dinosaur discoveries, little is known about the dinosaurs because all information comes from fossils and a lot of "educated guesses" have to be made.

Where did dinosaurs come from? God created the entire universe and everything in it including all animals (Gen 1:20-25; Exodus 20:11; Genesis 1; John 1:3).

Are dinosaurs in the Bible? Dinosaur-like creatures are mentioned in the Bible including "behemoth" and "tannin". Perhaps the best example is in Job 40.

What were the dinosaurs like? Man and dinosaurs lived together and man were masters over all God's wonderful creatures. (Gen 1:26, 28) In the first early days, all animals were friendly and under man's control. None of the animals ate meat or killed. God provided for all. There was no sin, no death, no evil and no disease. It was after the flood that things changed.

What happened to the dinosaurs? The Bible says that a great flood covered the entire earth. All but those on Noah's ark were killed, including dinosaurs.

Were dinosaurs on the ark? The Bible says one set of every air breathing land animal was on the ark. (Gen 6:12-20; 7:15-16). Young dinosaurs would be small and easier to care for than the full grown ones.

What happened after the flood? After the flood, the earth was very different and temperatures had changed. Some places were very hot and some very cold. Many parts of the world were too harsh for the dinosaurs to live and much harder to find food to feed their enormous bodies. It is not just dinosaurs that have become extinct. In the last 350 years alone, almost 400 species have disappeared. After the flood man also was responsible for killing many animals. The wooly mammoths and mastodons where wiped out by humans.

What about "millions of years old"? Just because something is fossilized does not mean it is millions or even thousands of years old. When conditions are right, a bone can become filled with minerals quickly. The main ingredients are quick burial, water and minerals. Conditions during the flood were ideal for creating fossils.

So, the attractions are a kind of stealth creationist museum. They're not overtly creationist, but they tone down on actual information that might contradict a literal reading of Genesis, and they sell creationist information in their gift shop.

What makes the story perhaps even more interesting is how they've handled the attention they've received over that particular blog post - they deleted it. I guess they don't like people knowing their true motivation.

You may be asking yourself if the attractions really are creationist, or if maybe there's some other reason that that blog post showed up. I think it's pretty likely that the company really is creationist. Had it been a hacker or a rogue employee, with all the attention that this has received, you'd think the company would have replaced the blog post in question with a bit of an explanation, or at least a disclaimer that their attraction follows mainstream views of the history of the Earth. Their silence speaks volumes.

There's also the fact that they haven't yet disappeared the creationist language from the end of their Teachers Guide (pdf):

Creation Science

Dinosaur World hosts field trips for groups of homeschoolers and students from church schools that teach a literal interpretation of the biblical account of creation. The informative plaques in the park present general facts about the dinosaurs. There are very few “millions of years ago” references.

For more information about creation science, see Science Partners (consultants for home-school and other education programs)
-http://www.sciencepartners.net

especially their links page -

http://www.sciencepartners.net/links_page.htm

This whole affair is rather disappointing. For one, I was kind of hoping to go to the attraction in Glen Rose, even if I wasn't expecting a whole lot. Now, I'm not so sure I want to support creationists (and if I was, I'd go to the more entertaining Creation Evidence Museum). It's also just one more example of the dishonesty of creationists. Dinosaur World should just come out and admit their creationist sympathies. They'd still get ridiculed for it, but at least they'd have their integrity. Or better yet, they could go to the library and learn about the actual history of life on this planet.

(Hat tip to Pharyngula)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Texas Education - Follow Up to Science Instructional Materials Debate

TEA LogoWow. I think this might be my first blog entry about the Texas Board of Education where I'm not complaining about them (at least, not much).

I wrote a few days ago about the vote taking place today for the final adoption of supplemental science instructional materials. The worry was that given the past behavior of certain board members, there might be some last minute dealings that affected the adoption process. Of particular concern was the material submitted by International Databases, which explicitly supported Intelligent Design.

Well, the debating took place yesterday and the final vote today is now done. The end result was almost entirely good for our state's kids. The ID material was rejected outright, and most of the panel's recommendations were accepted.

The one snafu in the whole process was the recommendations of a particular member of the review panel, David Shormann, described by Steven Schafersman as "an aggressive and dogmatic Young Earth Creationist." Shormann suggested numerous changes to the biology materials from the publisher, Holt McDougal. TFN Insider has a copy of his recommendations, along with challenges to those recommendations from the publisher. As an example of the quality of Shormann's suggestions, here's one of them:

Whale evolution- 4 fossils is hardly a "transition". 400 intermediates would work. Also, research has shown that there is no reason to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal. Also, no complete skeletons have been found, but the picture shows a full skeleton, which a major factual error. It is erroneous to include it in this example. Ambulocetus also shows a full skeleton, which is another major factual error, since no complete Ambulocetus skeletons have been found.

Here's how the publisher responded to that one:

There is no scientific basis to the assertion that hundreds of intermediates would be required to establish a transition in the fossil record. Four forms are shown here as a representative sample to illustrate the transition. There are, in fact, many more species in the fossil record linking the earliest forms in the lineage to modern cetaceans.

The text in this figure explicitly states that Pakicetus was a land-dwelling mammal. However, the panel's comment that "research has shown that there is no reaon to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal" is not quite accurate. Research suggests that it was mainly a land animal living in seasonally flooded marshes and likely feeding in aquatic systems by wading and possibly paddling. The ear structure shows it as a taxa near the base of the lineage leading to modern whales. It should be no surprise that basal members of the group would not be aquatic animals, since cetacenas are derived from terrestrial ancestors.

It is true that no complete skeletons have been found of Pakicetus and Ambulocetus, but extensive sets of fossil evidence do exist. See the attached photo of fossil bones for a single specimen of Ambulocetus, which shows a nearly complete reconstruction of the skeleton (Source: website of Dr. Hans Thewissen, leading expert in cetacean evolution) In fact, complete skeletons are rarely found for any species in the fossil record, but it is not necessary to have a complete skeleton to make strong deductions about the form of an animanl, how it lived, and its evolutionary relationships.

As an indication of how some members of the board operate, the publisher was denied the opportunity to defend themselves against Shormann's comments. It also came out that Shormann's recommendations were never agreed to by the other members of the panel, even though one of the ultra-right wing SBOE members had claimed that all members of the panel had signed them off. So, one crank on the review panel had somehow gotten his recommendations to the publisher and into the SBOE debate about the educational materials.

Anyway, after a bit of discussion about what to do with Shormann's recommendations, a compromise was reached, whereby, in the words of Schafersman, "the biology materials can be adopted with the provision that Commissioner Robert Scott examine the eight passages and rewrite them in a way that is scientifically-accurate and satisfactory to the publisher." Schafersman wrote that he's talked with the commissioner, and that the commissioner intends to talk to appropriately qualified experts when resolving this issue.

So, it looks like the recent changes to the SBOE makeup due to the last elections have been good. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come, and we can hope for better results for our children in the future.

More Info:


Updated 2011-07-27 - Added the links to the NCSE articles.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Texas Education - Science Instructional Materials Debate

TEA LogoThe Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is in the news again, this time for science education. For a bit of background on the SBOE, one of my previous posts, Texas Education in the Budget Crisis, has a quick run down of the shenanigans the board has pulled in recent years, mostly on less than honest means of passing new standards for various subjects.

The latest controversy is over the adoption of new science instructional materials for our public schools. A one day hearing on the materials will be held this Thursday, July 21st, followed by a final debate and vote on Friday. Unfortunately, not all of the materials submitted for consideration are particularly good, and some are downright harmful.

Consider the material submitted by International Databases. Here are some of the passages quoted in that article.

…at the end of the instructional unit on the Origins of Life, students should go home with the understanding that a new paradigm of explaining life’s origins is emerging from the failed attempts of naturalistic scenarios. This new way of thinking is predicated upon the hypothesis that intelligent input is necessary for life’s origins.
Many scientists have adopted an unproven hypothesis upon which to build their theories regarding the origin of life and its’ diversification. This ‘foundation’ is called scientific materialism, naturalism, and so forth… There are other scientists who have adopted the unproven hypothesis that an intelligence is necessary to explain both the origin, and diversification of life on Earth. This view follows from the human experience that teaches order (complexity) results from intelligent action.

The article has more, along with screen captures to see these quotes in context.


While you might suspect that a sensible board would reject such materials that weren't based on mainstream science, not all of the board members have demonstrated themselves to be sensible. Given their past behavior and their actions leading up to this vote, there's some reason to worry.

For example, when nominating members for the review panel to evaluate these materials, several of the board members appointed creationists (including my own representative, Gail Lowe, who appointed a man who likened evolution to religious dogma).

The new head of the Board, Barbara Cargill (appointed by Perry to replace Don McLeroy, after his first choice, Gail Lowe, didn't even receive a confirmation hearing from the state Senate), has made some rather divisive comments. In a speech to the Eagle Forum, she stated:

Right now there are six true conservative Christians on the board, so we have to fight for two votes. In previous years, we had to fight for one vote to get a majority.

Not only is this counter to what should be the secular goals of our public education system (secular as in non-religious, not anti-religious), it's insulting to the other Christians on the Board who don't agree with Cargill.


So, if you live in Texas, send a letter to the Board member that represents you, demanding that they uphold sound science standards and only approve appropriate, evidence based materials (here's an example of what I sent back when it was the science standards up for debate, which obviously needs to be updated appropriately). If you don't know who your representative is, you can find out at Who Represents Me?. You can follow the links from there to get their contact information, though it appears that all board members seem to have the same e-mail address, sboesupport@tea.state.tx.us.

Hopefully, with the recent losses of the ultra-right wing bloc in the last election, there's some hope that underhanded dealings similar to previous occurrences won't take place, and that our students will end up with good educational materials.


Additional Links:


Added 2011-07-27 - The debate and vote are over, and our children came out the winners. You can read more in a new entry, Texas Education - Follow Up to Science Instructional Materials Debate


Added 2011-07-21 & 22 - The debates are being live blogged by the TFN and by Steven Schafersman. So, here links to their live blogs, along with a bit more information.


Added 2011-07-19 - I've completed my letter to Mrs. Lowe, for anyone interested in reading it.

Attn: Gail Lowe - Science Instructional Materials

Mrs. Lowe,

I am a resident of Wichita Falls, and so you are my representative on the Board of Education. I have been disappointed in some of your past actions and votes that have weakened our children’s science education, but you have a chance to vote in support of sound science this Friday when it comes time to approve the new science instructional materials. It’s no secret that some of the submitted resources are sympathetic to creationism and Intelligent Design. Such resources do not accurately reflect mainstream scientific views, and would do our children a disservice by miseducating them.

I have written you before on science education, but considering your actions since that time, I feel obliged to repeat myself on certain issues.

First of all, evolution is accepted as true by the vast majority of mainstream biologists. Consider the following statement from the summary of the National Academy of Sciences’ 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."

Rather than go on at length listing scientific organizations and agencies that have issued similar statements endorsing evolution, I'll direct you to the following page on the website of the National Center for Science Education, which does list such statements:
http://ncseweb.org/media/voices/science

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 few very informative websites where you can find this information:

I hesitate to bring up the legal issues involved with the teaching of creationism, because 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 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 the Rodney LeVake v. Independent School District 656, et al. trial in Minnesota (which is relevant to the "strengths and limitations" tactic). These types of battles are completely unnecessary, as they could be avoided entirely simply by keeping science classes limited to well founded science.

I think it hardly needs to be said that I will not vote for a representative who puts their own biases above the recommendations of experts in the appropriate field. I urge you to vote in favor of the evidence based resources, and to reject the resources that would miseducate our children.

Sincerely,
Jeffrey R. Lewis

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Creationism/Evolution Spam

No SpamI received an interesting spam e-mail the other day.

Hi Jeff,

We posted an article that we thought you and your readers might be interested in having a look at, "Yay or Nay: 20 Sites Debating Evolution vs Creationism" ( [link removed - jrl] ). Just thought I'd let you know that you would be interested in featuring or mentioning it in your blog.

Thanks for your time!
Sheryl Owen

It looked superficially honest enough. Only the included url (that I deleted) gave it away. It was to a site called 'change of address dot org' (with spaces removed and the dot as a '.'). They'd thrown together a handful of links on the topic, with the pretense of it being a useful resource, but it was obviously just a hook to try to bring eyes to their site so that they could sell you something.

I'm not going to link to that site, since that would reward their practices with an improved Google ranking. However, if you want to see it for yourself, just do a Google search for 'Yay or Nay: 20 Sites Debating Evolution vs Creationism', and it will pop up along with its clones.

First of all, it's set up as if there's a legitimate debate on the issue, with 8 pro-evolutionary science sites, 8 pro-creationism sites, and 4 'Middle of the Road Options'. Now, that's fine if you're trying to understand the culture of the debate, but it's not very useful for getting at the truth. There's no real scientific question over the truth of evolution - it's entirely a cultural issue, with people refusing to accept evolution for other reasons (such as religion).

But even looking at their links to pro-evolution sites is a bit odd. I've been rather caught up in the evolution/creation debate for several years now, so I know some of the better websites that deal with the issue. Their links left off some of the best. Here are the links they chose, in the order they presented them:

None of those are bad sites. In fact, if I had to make a list of the 8 best evolution sites that I knew of, I'd probably include a few they mentioned (especially The Panda's Thumb). But where is The TalkOrigins Archive? How can you possibly mention the evolution/creationism debate without including that site? In my opinion, it is the best resource for people who misunderstand evolution because of misinformation from creationist leaders. And what about Berkeley's Understanding Evolution site, PBS: Evolution, or even the National Center for Science Education?

Their pro-creationism sites were also odd. They included a link to the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and Answers in Genesis, which I fully expected, but left off links to the most prominent Intelligent Design sites, such as Uncommon Descent and The Discovery Institute.

Oh well. I get lots of spam, and I hardly ever mention it on this blog. And this entry ended up turning into something longer than the e-mail actually deserved. It's just a bit irritating to get an e-mail that initially looks like something that may be worth posting, only to discover that it's a scam. Plus, this was a decent opportunity for me to post links to some good resources on evolution.


For a post that I didn't consider terribly interesting, this one has already gotten a troll in the comments, and an e-mail from Robert Luhn of the NCSE (that's a lot of traffic for me, so back off </Billy Madison voice>). I may respond to David Buckna in the comments, but I thought I'd include up here two more evolution resources from the NCSE e-mail.

We've excerpted a ton of evolution books on our site. Check out our archive here:
http://ncse.com/resources/free-evolution-book-downloads

Another good resource: our Antievolution Legislation Scorecard at:
http://ncse.com/evolution/antievolution-legislation-scorecard

Those are good resources worth taking a look at.


Update 2012-03-07 - If you happen to be reading this on one of the archive pages on this site, note that there was a rather long exchange between a reader and me in the comments section. You may want to click on the 'Read more' link to read the comments.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Something Fishy at Answers in Genesis

Fish With LegsI don't generally go looking for articles at Answers in Genesis (AiG). I have written about them previously (the most explicit mentions being in I Can't Escape Fundamentalists Even When I'm Researching Pure Science, Creation Museum, Creation Museum/Creationist Rule of Thumb with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, AiG's Creation Museum Follow-Up, and Another Creation Museum Review), and I haven't been terribly impressed with anything coming from their organization. It would be a time sink to go looking for articles to debunk from their site, because there are so many bad articles to choose from (it would also be a bit superfluous since so many have already been covered in the Index to Creationist Claims). However, in a recent comment thread on Pharyngula, someone included a link to AiG, and I took the bait.

The article in question is Something fishy about lungs, written by Joachim Vetter. I was interested in it, because it was related to an entry I wrote previously, Book Review - At the Water's Edge.

The introduction starts off simply and accurately enough.

It is well known that creatures which live permanently in water generally breathe through gills, not lungs. The lungfishes, which are able to survive long periods when their watery habitat dries up, are regarded as a peculiar exception.

In then goes on to set up a possible scenario by which lungs could have evolved, and adds the following statement.

For a long time it was believed that this swim-bladder was a logical ‘first step’ towards the later development of lungs as vertebrates conquered the land.

I don't know the full history of scientific thought on how lungs evolved, but I'll grant them that this could be true - that at one time, people believed it probable that lungs evolved from swim-bladders. Just keep in mind that it's not the current consensus.

Next, the article points out a simple fact about the natural world, but one which I don't see why would have any negative repercussions for evolution.

The first awkward fact, usually not mentioned in high school evolutionary texts, is that there are actually many modern species of fish (not mammals, but real fish) which have lungs as well as gills.

The article then points out a fact from the archaeological record that forces one to question the 'swim-bladder to lung story', and rightly so.

An even more bitter blow for evolutionists (again seldom seen in basic texts) is that fossil evidence has come to light forcing a 180-degree reversal in the ‘swim-bladder to lung’ story. Lungs appear to be much more ‘ancient’ than swim-bladders, so by this reasoning, lungs must have evolved into swim-bladders!

In fact, as noted in my other blog entry, this is the current consensus on the relationship between lungs and swim bladders. It's not just the fossil record that demonstrates this, but cladistics as well. Only teleosts have true swim bladders. Just like this article itself noted, there are other groups of fish that have lungs. And there exist other groups with structures intermediate between lungs and swim bladders. The most parsimonious explanation is that lungs evolved first, and only developed into bladders in one lineage. And just for reference, sharks and rays, which diverged from other fish around 450 millions years ago, don't have any type of lung or swim bladder at all.

Next was another statement that seems obvious enough.

Whether endowed with gills, lungs, or a combination of both, all fish, living or extinct, appear to be (or have been) well equipped for the requirements of their way of life.

But with that in mind, read the passage that immediately followed.

The ‘obvious’ evolution of lungs from swim-bladders turns out to be a myth. In addition, a literal evolutionary- chronological reading of the fossil record shows that evolution must have had remarkable foresight. In spite of the fact that lungs are not needed for survival (fish being able to cope well with gills) they appear and are prevalent among fishes at least 100 million years (on the alleged evolutionary time-scale) before their (imaginary) migration to the land. How wonderful of evolution to develop, all by chance of course, such a ‘test pattern’, ready to be taken out of mothballs when required.

It's like the author completely forgot what he had written just one paragraph before. If he acknowledged that living fish with lungs appear to be well adapted to their environments, why would he think it must have been 'foresight' that made lungs appear in the first place. And how could he write that 'lungs are not needed for survival' of fish, when he just listed examples earlier in the article of fish that do require lungs to survive. And the author never even considered fish with swim bladders that have secondarily evolved non-lung means of breathing atmospheric oxygen (such as bettas). It seems that air breathing is a useful adaptation for aquatic life without any consideration at all for life on land (though there are probably multiple reasons for this, as noted in my previous entry, one of the most obvious is that oxygen levels aren't as consistent in water as in the atmosphere, with some bodies of water being nearly completely devoid of oxygen).

I know there's not a whole lot of new information in this entry compared to my previous entry on lungs and swim bladders, but to read an article that no only ignores evidence and sets up a straw man explanation of evolution, but which also contradicts itself so clearly from one paragraph to the next, is just really frustrating. I couldn't read something that bad without venting about it here. It's just one more example of why not to trust AiG.


Added 2011-07-06 - I should add that I only covered the most obvious errors from the AiG article. There were numerous others, such as what's actually in biology textbooks, as well as details of which animals have lungs vs. swim bladders.

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