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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Stockbridge 14: What Did They Discover?

Fourteen people have been invited to a special meeting in Stockbridge Massachusetts (USA). They are: Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, David Poeppel, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, Steven Weinberg, and Massimo Pigliucci. On the first day they discussed "naturalism" (morning session) and evolution, complexity and emergence (afternoon session"). Read the summaries in the links to my first post [The Stockbridge 14].

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What Is Critical Thinking?

We all use the term "critical thinking to describe one of the primary goals of education. What do we mean by "critical thinking"?

As usual, it takes a philosopher to sort out the various meanings and arrive at a reasonable definition. (Philosophers are experts at critical thinking, although they often use it when it's not necessary.) Read what John Wilkins has to say at: What is critical thinking. Contrast his critical thinking about the subject with that illustrated in the Wikipedia article on Critical Thinking.

Here's his bottom line but you really need to see his examples of what is not critical thinking.
Critical thinking is the application of careful analysis and rational reconstruction to arguments, so that the correctness of the reasoning and the truth of the premises can be evaluated and the support for the conclusion determined.

Rational thinking is the assent of the reasoner to any conclusion that is both correctly reasoned and founded on known to be true, or likely to be true, premises.

In short, a critical and rational thinker is one who accepts the conclusions of good arguments.
I agree with John and this is what Chris DiCarlo and I teach in our course. But, you should read the comments on John's blog.

Once you've mastered the basic rules of logic, most arguments should be about whether the premises are likely to be true.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Stockbridge 14

Fourteen people have been invited to a special meeting in Stockbridge Massachusetts (USA). They are: Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, David Poeppel, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, Steven Weinberg, and Massimo Pigliucci. So far they've discussed the meaning of "naturalism," including the nature of reality (morning session) and evolution, complexity and emergence (afternoon session") [Moving Naturalism Forward].

You can read Jerry Coyne's description at: Interim report: Moving Naturalism Forward Meeting. Massimo Pigliucci has also written about the first day at: From the naturalism workshop, part I.

So far it sounds quite boring. It looks looks like some of the philosophers have tricked the scientists into debating the precise meaning of words that nobody has been able to define precisely in the past one hundred years. Does anyone outside of philosophers actually care whether we have precise definitions of "naturalism" and "supernatural"? We all know what we're talking about when we discuss the existence of god(s).

And what about "emerging properties"? Surely that's a topic that's already been debated to death? What in the world do they expect to learn other than the fact they disagree on the definition of what an enregent property actually means?

As for complexity, it's either so simple that we all recognize it when we see it, or so "complex" that nobody cares. Here's what Coyne says ...
The discussion of complexity, introduced by Simon DeDeo and much discussed by Janna Levin, was way over my head. I found some consolation in the fact that Dennett, too, announced that he didn’t understand what was being said!
That doesn't sound very promising.

I'm not looking forward to the results of the next two days because they're going to tackle silly topics like the nature of morality, free will, "meaning," and "purpose". I wonder if they're going to debate the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism? I wonder when they'll get to the issues of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

[Photo Credit: One Angel Dancing on the Head of a Pin]

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Five Myths (?) About Intelligent Design Creationism

Melissa Travis writes for a blog called Hard-Core Christianity. Her latest post is: Top Five Myths Christians (and Non-Christians) Often Believe About Intelligent Design. It's interesting because it reveals the standard myths that Intelligent Design Creationists believe about themselves.

Here's the list of "myths" along with what Mellisa Travis has to say about them.
MYTH #1: Intelligent Design (ID) is just a fancy name for Creationism.

The true story: Intelligent Design theory is not a form of, nor is it synonymous with “creationism.” Rather, it is an over-arching scientific theory that disputes wholly naturalistic/materialistic accounts of the origin of the universe and the origin of life. As such it is an indispensable ally for those who espouse various creation models. ID makes NO CLAIM about the age of the earth.
FACT: Modern Intelligent Design Creationism evolved from the creationist movement in the 1980s as was proven conclusively in the Dover trial. Intelligent Design Creationism is not a scientific theory. Instead, its a hodgepodge of criticisms of evolution and of scientists and materialism. Just look at the posts on Evolution News & Views (sic) to see what it's all about. Count the number of posts promoting a "scientific" view of Intelligent Design Creationism as opposed to disjointed helter-skelter criticisms of evolution that often contradict each other.

There's no "over-arching" scientific theory in sight.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is It True?

Is it True? Uncovering the Heart of Each of the World's Religions

The University of Toronto Secular alliance (UTSA), in conjunction with Power 2 Change, Muslim Students Association and the Multifaith Centre is hosting a lecture and discussion series entitled "…is it true?"

This series will feature the following speakers:

Oct. 24: Islam (Amjad Tarsin, Muslim Chaplain, U of T)
Oct. 31: Christianity (Kyle Hackmann, Grace Toronto Church)
Nov. 7: Judaism (Yishaya Rose, Chaplain, Chabad House, U of T)
Nov. 14: Atheism (Professor Larry Moran, U of T, Secular Alliance)

Each speaker will speak on behalf of the philosophical framework to which they subscribe to. Following the lecture, there will be a period of Q and A following by an open discussion amongst attendees.

I encourage you to attend these talks as I suspect a lot of fruitful conversations can emerge. To this end, specifically, we are delighted to have biochemist Dr. Larry Moran, represent our side of the conversation.

University College 5:30pm-7:00pm, rm 52. Light dinner will be served.

Please find event page below:


Hope to see some of you there!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Monday's Molecule #191

Last week's molecule was L-dopa. The winner was Raul A. Félix de Sousa (again, but this time only by four minutes!) [Monday's Molecule #190].

This week's molecule is much more complicated and it's also much more important. You need to identify this complex making sure you distinguish it from other similar complexes. You don't need to name the exact species but you should have some idea of which organisms have this complex and which ones don't. There's not enough room in the comments for the complete IUPAC name!

You'll get special bonus points (and the expensive lunch in the dining room instead of the pub) for explaining how an irreducibly complex structure like this could have evolved.

Post your answer as a comment. I'll hold off releasing any comments for 24 hours. The first one with the correct answer wins. I will only post mostly correct answers to avoid embarrassment. The winner will be treated to a free lunch.

There could be two winners. If the first correct answer isn't from an undergraduate student then I'll select a second winner from those undergraduates who post the correct answer. You will need to identify yourself as an undergraduate in order to win. (Put "undergraduate" at the bottom of your comment.)

Stupid American Atheists

American Atheists have decided that it's in their best interests to take sides in the Presidential election. They produced a billboard and mounted it on a truck to drive around Boca Raton, Florida, the site of this evening's third presidential debate [American Atheists Demand Answers on Romney's Religious Loyalty].

This is not only an attack on religion—as opposed to an attack on the existence of god(s)—but it's an attack on a particular religion that just happens to be the religion of one of the candidates. There's no balanced attack on the religion of the other candidate even though his religion is just as bad.

This is really stupid and American Atheists should be ashamed of themselves. It's the sort of thing that rightly fuels the accommodationist objections to the New Atheists.

Chris Stedman Defends Accommodationism

Chris Stedman is currently the Assistant Humanist Chaplain1 and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard [Chris Stedman]. He has a Master's degree in religion and is a former evangelical Christian.

As you might imagine from his position at Harvard, Stedman supports the non-theistic Humanism "religion." His goal is to advance particular social policies and often that goal is shared by theists. Hence, cooperating with theists to achieve common goals, such as social justice, is a major part of his life.

That's noble. Even though I don't share his humanist worldview—and have no intention of becoming a humanist—I can support many of the issues he is passionate about. Like all my atheist friends, I have no problem working with theists of all stripes when it comes to making our society a better place—just as I have no problem working with conservatives, homeopaths, anti-abortionists, people who favor capital punishment, pro-gun lobbyists, and even misogynists and racists if the issue is important enough.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Another Evolutionary Paradox?

The IDiots are remarkably good at uncritical thinking. When you couple this tendency to ignorance of evolution, you come up with some remarkable conclusions.

Take, for example, the well-known fact that rich people tend to have fewer children than poor people. What this means is that poor people are better at passing on their genes (alleles) to the next generation than rich people. If there is a genetic component to richness and poorness then poor people are "more fit" than rich people and, eventually, the poorness alleles will become fixed in the population. That's just a fact and it doesn't matter what you might think about the genetic advantage of being rich.

Of course there may not be any significant difference in the genetic compositions of rich people and poor people in which case the argument becomes moot.

Let's see how an anonymous IDiot deals with this information on their main blog site, Evolution News & Views (sic) ... [Survival of the Poorest: Another Evolutionary Paradox].
Here's another evolutionary paradox: the "demographic transition." We've alluded to this before, but why not recall the point? Darwin notwithstanding, it seems to support the view that the meek shall inherit the earth.

By all accounts, the rich should be, in Darwinian terms, the fittest. They have the most resources, and the most opportunities for advancement. Yet they leave fewer offspring. That's the finding of a large study of Swedish families that's just been completed.

Nature recently recognized that this has been a known contradiction to evolutionary theory.
"Fitness" is defined in all evolutionary biology textbooks as ...
The fitness of a genotype is the average lifetime contribution of individuals of that genotype to the population after one or more generations ... A general term for this number is reproductive success, which includes not simply the average number of offspring produced by the reproductive process, but the number that survive, since survival is prerequisite to reproduction.

Futuyma, D.J. (2009) Evolution p. 306
Do the IDiots ever read basic introductory evolution textbooks or do they just pull out "evolutionary paradoxes" from their nether parts? There's no contradiction with evolutionary theory and there's nothing in "Darwinian terms" that defines fitness as anything but reproductive success.

The only "puzzle" might be the naive presumption that rich people should have more reproductive success than poor people but we've known that this isn't true for over one hundred years.

[Photo Credit: Ten children of Ethel and Bobby Kennedy (the 11th child was born after Bobby was killed). This is the exception that proves the rule. Prompted by last night's viewing of the remarkable documentary Ethel which also prompts the question, "Why doesn't America have principled politicians like Bobby Kennedy any more?"]

Science Journal Publishes More Gobbledygook

I don't know what's happening at Science these days. It got caught up in the arsenic affair last year and it recently made a fool of itself over the ENCODE publicity fiasco where it was completely duped by Ewan Birney.

Now it has published the following "perspective" in the October 12th issue. It reads like a Sokal hoax but it's perfectly legitimate. That's actually how Stuart Neuman proposes to solve the mystery of the Cambrian explosion.
Stuart A. Newman
Physico-Genetic Determinants in the Evolution of Development
Science 338:217-219 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1222003]


Animal bodies and the embryos that generate them exhibit an assortment of stereotypic morphological motifs that first appeared more than half a billion years ago. During development, cells arrange themselves into tissues with interior cavities and multiple layers with immiscible boundaries, containing patterned arrangements of cell types. These tissues go on to elongate, fold, segment, and form appendages. Their motifs are similar to the outcomes of physical processes generic to condensed, chemically excitable, viscoelastic materials, although the embryonic mechanisms that generate them are typically much more complex. I propose that the origins of animal development lay in the mobilization of physical organizational effects that resulted when certain gene products of single-celled ancestors came to operate on the spatial scale of multicellular aggregates.
Neuman was one of the Alternberg 16, a group of scientists who met in Altenberg, Austria in 2008. Their purpose was to develop a new theory of evolution. The proceedings were collected in a book edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. M^uuml;ller, Evolution: The Extended Synthesis.

This story has been promoted by a rogue journalist named Suzan Mazur and she has written a book on the subject. Here's her interview with Stuart Newman, The New Master Of Evolution?. Elizabeth Pennisi, a senior editor at Science, helped publicize the Altenberg 16 back in 2008 by publishing an article in Science [Modernizing the Modern Synthesis]. She has been sympathetic to the bizarre views of some Altenberg 16 members so I suspect she's behind the publication of Stuart Newman's article in Science.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Douglas Axe on Protein Evolution and Magic Numbers

Imagine that I asked you to "prove" evolution by transforming a chimpanzee into a human. Would you recognize the fallacy that I described recently in Why Are Chimps Still Chimps?. Of course you would. Any intelligent person who understands evolution knows that chimps and humans share a common ancestor and both have evolved substantially since the two lineages diverged. In order to change a chimp into a human you would first have to "devolve" it back to the common ancestor and proceed from there. That requires a lot of changes.

Now let's think about two enzymes that are members of the same gene family but have evolved different functions. It's easiest to think of these as two enzymes that are now specific for similar but distinct substrates. Imagine that you were asked to "prove" evolution by changing one of those enzymes into the other? Would you recognize the same fallacy? Would you realize that the most likely evolutionary scenario is that the two different enzyme specificities evolved from an ancestral enzyme that carried out both reactions? [see: The Evolution of Enzymes from Promiscuous Precursors]

Changing one of the modern enzymes into the other would require many changes because in most cases the common ancestor dates back hundreds of millions of years. Many of the changes that have become fixed in the two lineages were not directly involved in selecting one of the substrates over the other (i.e. increasing specificity). They were neutral mutations fixed by random genetic drift after the enzyme became specialized for one or other of the substrates. Many would have to be "reversed" in order to re-create the dual specificity because they would have been detrimental in the ancestral enzyme.

Think about these facts as you watch Douglas Axe explain why his research shows that evolution is impossible [Video: Doug Axe on Protein Evolution's Magic Number (It's Six)].

On Attacking the Integrity of Scientists

We are discussing the evolution/creation controversy in my course. One of the issues that comes up frequently is the role of scientific evidence. The importance of science in the 21st century cannot be exaggerated. Everyone wants science to be on their side because if your views conflict directly with scientific evidence then your case is very weak.

So, how do creationists handle this issue? They usually try to present counter-evidence or they cherry-pick the scientific literature looking for papers that lend support to their cause. But that only takes you so far. Creationists are forced to admit that the vast majority of scientists support evolution and that's a real problem for their flock.

The solution is obvious. If you can't attack the science then attack the scientists. By casting doubt on the motives of scientists you can partially neutralize the impact of science.

Here's an excellent example from today's post on Evolution News & Views (sic) [How to Talk About "Evolution"].
Better to think of opinion as sharply divided. The professors, their students and many university-educated people believe one thing (evolution is a fact) and most everyone else is suspicious. They won't believe in evolution if you tell them what the professors believe -- that life in all its complexity assembled itself as a result of a series of lucky hits; that we live in a world of random changes that sometimes "coincide" with the environment (natural selection); and that's how we got here.

To believe that, we first have to be blinded by antagonism to the normal, automatic recognition of purpose and design in nature. And for most people, this blindness has to be inculcated; by teachers, by the academy, by the culture.

As to the possibility of our reaching the professor group, the trouble with my correspondent's design versus "accidental mutation/natural selection" formula is not that it is too wordy but that the professoriate have learned to accept that accidental mutation and natural selection can explain everything under the sun.

I have often wondered: What would it take for a biology professor to see some living organism, study it and then clap his hand to his forehead and say: "Wow, natural selection couldn't possibly have done THAT!"

Answer: Nothing. They are locked into a materialist worldview, and they think that anything outside it is unscientific. They have already accepted Lewontin's Law about the necessity of a "prior commitment to materialism." They will look at any strange organism you may show them and say: "Well, it exists doesn't it? How else did it get here, if not by gradual stages, bit by bit, starting with molecules in motion, finally building up to what we see in front of us? What other choice is there?"

In such a dogmatic environment dissenters wisely keep their mouths shut and upholders of the orthodoxy firmly close their minds.
Of course they don't like it when we refer to them as IDiots or creationists but they have an answer to that one as well.
Going beyond that, some of our better-known adversaries indulge in name-calling so mechanically that they may well have ceased to understand the issues. It's as though they become unable to think about what they don't want to think about. Those who resort to slogans like "ID creationism" often show no sign of understanding what the claims of ID are, sufficiently even to be able to restate them.
Unfortunatly for the IDiots, I actually understand the issues better than they do! Here's the main tenets of Intelligent Design Creationism.
  1. Darwin is evil and gave rise to Hilter. Evolutionists are wedded to atheism and materialism. Most scientists are too stupid to interpret evidence correctly. Evolution cannot account for life as we know it.
  2. Life can only be explained by invoking an Intelligent Designer but we're not going to tell you how or when he/she/it did it.
  3. The Intelligent Designer is not necessarily a god. We never said that so you can't accuse us of being creationists.
  4. The general public is being prevented from learning the truth about creationism anti-evolutionary theory by a vast conspiracy of dogmatic scientists who control higher education (and almost everything else in some secular "foreign" countries like France or Japan).
Do you think I got it right?

Does Environmental Change Drive Evolution?

I recently posted an article on the lack of evolution in species that have lived through several ice ages {More Evidence of Short-term Stasis]. This prompted a discussion about whether any serious evolutionary biologists really believe the opening statement in the abstract of the paper, "Conventional neo-Darwinian theory views organisms as infinitely sensitive and responsive to their environments, and considers them able to readily change size or shape when they adapt to selective pressures" (Prothero et al. 2012).

I believe that lots of biologists think like this. Let's discuss a quotation from The Blind Watchmaker (1986, p.178-179) by Richard Dawkins. How many readers agree with him?
After many generations of cumulative selection in a particular place, the local animals and plants become well fitted to the conditions, for instance weather conditions, in that place. If it is cold the animals come to have thick coats of hair, or feathers. If it is dry they evolve leathery or waxy waterproof skins to conserve what little water there is. The adaptations to local conditions affect every part of the body, its shape and color, its internal organs, its behavior, and the chemistry of its cells.

If the conditions in which a lineage of animals lives remain constant; say it is dry and hot and has been so without a break for 100 generations, evolution in that lineage is likely to come to a halt, at least as far as adaptations to temperatures and humidity are concerned. The animals will become as well fitted as they can be to local conditions. This doesn't mean that they couldn't be completely redesigned to be even better. It does mean that they can't improve themselves by any small (and therefore likely) evolutionary step: none of their immediate neighbors in the local equivalents of 'biomorph space' would do any better.

Evolution will come to a standstill until something in the conditions changes: the onset of an ice age, a change in the average rainfall of the area, a shift in the prevailing wind. Such changes do happen when we are dealing with a timescale as long as the evolutionary one. As a consequence, evolution normally does not come to a halt, but constantly 'tracks' changing environment. If there is a steady downward drift in the average temperatures in the area, a drift that persists over centuries, successive generations of animals will be propelled by a steady selection 'pressure' in the direction, say, of growing longer coats of hair. If, after a few thousand years of reduced temperature the trend reverses and average temperatures creep up again, the animals will come under the influence of the new selection pressure, and will be pushed towards growing shorter coats again.

Prothero, D.R., Syverson, V.J., Raymond, K.R., Madan, M., Molina, M., Fragomeni, A., DeSantis, S., Sutyagina, A., and Gage, G.L. (2012) Size and shape stasis in late Pleistocene mammals and birds from Rancho La Brea during the Last Glacial–Interglacial cycle. Quaternary Science Reviews 56:1–10. [doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2012.08.015]

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

More Evidence of Short-term Stasis

A group of paleontologists recently documented stasis in birds and mammals from 35,000 years ago to today (Prothero et al., 2012).

Intelligent Design Creationists such as Douglas Axe are surprised by this result [Tar Pit Study Shows Complete Absence of Evolutionary Change]. So, apparently, are the authors even though they are evolutionary biologists and they have published this observation before.

How many Sandwalk readers are surprised by this paper?

Understanding Evolution in New England Colleges and Universities

The March issue of Evolution: Education & Outreach contains an interesting article on "Educators of Prospective Teachers Hesitate to Embrace Evolution Due to Deficient Understanding of Science/Evolution and High Religiosity" (Paz-y-Miño-C and Espinosa, 2012). The authors surveyed three groups at 17 colleges and universities in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island in the USA (New England states). The three groups were (1) general faculty members, (2) faculty members who were involved with training prospective teachers (educators), and (3) undergraduates.

Most of the general faculty (82%) thought that evolution was definitely true but only 54% of the students agreed. Among the educators only 71% thought that evolution was definitely true. This is a general trend. Educators tend to be more religious and less certain of evolution than typical faculty members but less religious and more accepting of evolution than the average student.

Why Are Chimps Still Chimps?

The American Biology Teacher published an issue dedicated to evolution back in February 2012. I got a chance to see this issue when I was in Ottawa for a big evolution meeting last July but it's taken me this long to blog about it.

One of the most impressive articles is Why Are Chimps Still Chimps" (Johnson et al. 2012). It answers the most common questions from students about human evolution and the evolution of our closest cousin, the chimpanzee.

You will learn about the difference between anagenesis and cladogenesis and why our common ancestor might have looked more like a modern chimpanzee than a modern human.

Johnson et al. are addressing teachers and they know it's important to directly refute students' misconceptions in class. They do a good job of pointing out those misconceptions.

Here's the conclusion of their paper.
If humans evolved from chimps, why are there still chimps? The two major misconceptions this question reflects are that evolution is (1) always linear and (2) innately progressive. The common depiction of evolution as a linear progression throughout which ape-like creatures become more like modern humans is a gross simplification (see Gould, 1989, for further discussion of the iconography). Along these lines, we encourage educators to find images of human and ape family trees in which the human–chimp common ancestor is depicted as an illustration, rather than those that use photographs of chimps to represent this common ancestor – reinforcing the very misconception we are trying to avoid. As we discussed, much of evolution results in a pattern known as cladogenesis; this involves processes that have given rise to the tree-like pattern of the diversity of life. Moreover, evolution does not necessarily equate to progress, as change is not always progressive (Ruse, 1996). It is incorrect to speak of living organisms as more (or less) evolved than other living organisms. Chimps are just as evolved as humans. The lineages leading to chimps and humans split from one another some 6 million years ago; since then, each has taken its own path.
This is an example of the misconception that we need to refute ...

Johnson, N.A., Smith, J.J., Pobiner, B. and Schrein, C. (2012) Why Are Chimps Still Chimps? The American Biology Teacher 74:74-80. [DOI: 10.1525/abt.2012.74.2.3]

Monday, October 15, 2012

Monday's Molecule #190

Last week's molecule was carnitine (3-hydroxy-4-(trimethylazaniumyl)butanoate) or carnitine. The winner was Raúl Mancera [Monday's Molecule #189].

Name this week's molecule. Be sure to give an unambiguous name—it can be the common name or the IUPAC name. Why is this molecule important in some species?

Post your answer as a comment. I'll hold off releasing any comments for 24 hours. The first one with the correct answer wins. I will only post mostly correct answers to avoid embarrassment. The winner will be treated to a free lunch.

There could be two winners. If the first correct answer isn't from an undergraduate student then I'll select a second winner from those undergraduates who post the correct answer. You will need to identify yourself as an undergraduate in order to win. (Put "undergraduate" at the bottom of your comment.)

Eschaton 2012 Is Coming!


Come to Ottawa for a weekend gathering of scientists, philosophers, authors, academics, skeptics, rationalists, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers, where you can see presentations and join discussions on science, skepticism, gender issues, theocracy vs secularism, godless ethics, parenting beyond belief. Featured speakers include blogger PZ Myers, author Ophelia Benson, philosopher Chris DiCarlo, science education activist Eugenie Scott, and many others. You can even participate in a live recording of Canada's skeptical podcast, "The Reality Check" (

Saturday evening we present our gala "Night at the Musuem" (held at the Canadian Museum of Nature), which includes a reception, talk by PZ Myers, and late night special events, with exclusive access to the Fossil Gallery and Earth Gallery.

The price of $275 ($225 for CFI members) includes access to the Friday night plenary session, a choice of 2 daytime tracks on Saturday and Sunday, lunches and snacks, plus the Saturday evening gala. (A limited number of volunteer discounts are available - email for more information.)

Eschaton 2012
November 30-December 2
Ottawa, Canada
The best event, by far, will be Saturday morning ...

9 AM: Eugenie Scott
10AM: Larry Moran "Science vs IDiots"
11AM: PZ Myers
11:30 AM: Audience Q+A, panel on science education (PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Larry Moran)

See you there!

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A Dishonest Intelligent Design Proponent?

Most IDiots are ignorant about evolution and they let their religious biases interfere with the proper interpretation of scientific data. We excuse their mistakes on the grounds that they don't know any better.

However, some IDiots clearly should know better. They have advanced degrees in relevant fields and they have received considerable feedback on the claims they post or the books they write. We know they have read the critiques so when they persist in repeating falsehoods, there must be another explanation. They must be lying.

Jonathan Wells has a Ph.D. in molecular biology. He has posted numerous articles about junk DNA and he was written a book on the subject (The Myth of Junk DNA). Lots of people have made comments about his blog posts and his book has been widely critiqued. Many of his claims have been shown to be false.

So what do we make of his recent post on Evolution News & Views) (sic) entitled Why All the Fuss Over Some Junk?. We are forced to conclude that Wells is dishonest. Perhaps with the caveat expressed by Peter Medawar many years ago in his review of Père Teihard's The Phenomenon of Man.
Yet the greatest part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that he has taken great pains to deceive himself.

An Honest Intelligent Design Proponent?

It's unusual to find a proponent of Intelligent Design Creationism who makes an honest attempt to evaluate scientific facts. Jonathan McLatchie (Jonathan M) seems to be one of those rare birds. I'm not going to refer to him as an IDiot.

Here's a bit from his latest post on Evolution News & Views (sic [Perspectives on ENCODE and Junk DNA].
The debate thus hinges on whether activity such as transcription, transcription factor association, and histone modification are signs of true function. My own view is that such activity is suggestive of functionality, but not proof. Therefore I would be cautious about claiming that these results show 80% of the genome to have function in the sense that we normally use that word.

On the other hand, the observation that the genome is buzzing with activity underscores what proponents of ID have been saying for years: not knowing what something does doesn't constitute evidence that it's doing nothing. Moreover, it wasn't long ago that Laurence Moran and PZ Myers were telling us that the genome is not even pervasively transcribed and that this amounted to evidence that the majority of our DNA is junk.
That's pretty good for someone who posts on a blog that also publishes stuff from Jonathan Wells and Casey Luskin. I wonder if they talk to each other?

On the other hand, it's not perfect. I've been arguing for years that there is good solid evidence that most of our genome is junk. I have never used the argument from ignorance that Jonathan attributes to me.

Also, I have never denied that the genome is pervasively transcribed. Instead, I have argued that pervasive transcription is something that one expects given what we know about DNA binding proteins and transcription. I've pointed out that the vast majority of our genome is transcribed very rarely—about one transcript per day in 100 cells—and this is consistent with accidental transcription. This is noise. The product is junk RNA and is has no function [Useful RNAs?] [Junk RNA] [Pervasive Transcription] [How to Frame a Null Hypothesis] [How to Evaluate Genome Level Transcription Papers ].

I discussed this thoroughly when I reviewed Jonathan Wells' book The Myth of Junk DNA [Junk & Jonathan: Part 6—Chapter 3]. Perhaps Jonathan McLatchie hasn't read my earlier posts?

Contrast McLatchie's post with that of Jonathan Wells [A Dishonest Intelligent Design Proponent?].

Breaking News ... New Atheists Aren't Very Sophisticated

Richard Swinburne is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford (UK). He's a noted Christian apologist who has written many books defending the existence of God. According to Wikipedia, his two most important "sophisticated" priniciples are:
  • Principle of Credulity - with the absence of any reason to disbelieve it, one should accept what appears to be true (e.g., if one sees someone walking on water, one should believe that it is occurring)
  • Principle of Testimony - with the absence of any reason to disbelieve them, one should accept that eye-witnesses or believers are telling the truth when they testify about religious experiences.
What this means is that when it comes to religious experiences that confirm your beliefs you should abandon skepticism. I don't think these principles apply to people who have seen leprechauns or been abducted by UFOs. It probably doesn't apply to Muslims or Hindus, either. It seems like a "sophisticated" way of shifting the burden of proof.

As you might imagine, Swinburne is really unhappy with the New Atheists because they ignore all his sophisticated apologetics and simply ask for evidence of God. That's not playing fair. They probably haven't read any of his books.

There ought to be a rule for people who claim to have sophisticated arguments for the existence of god(s). They should have to describe at least one of them.

[Hat Tip: Uncommon Descent]

What Is Evolution?

Most non-scientists seem to be quite confused about precise definitions of biological evolution. Part of the confusion is because the word "evolution" has many different meanings, depending on the context. When we talk about biology we are thinking about biological evolution and that's the term I want to define here. What do biologists mean when they refer to biological evolution?

This is a slightly modified version of a post from January, 2007 which, in turn, is a moified version of an essay that appears here. An even earlier version is on the TalkOrigins Archive.One of the most respected evolutionary biologists has defined biological evolution as follows:
Biological (or organic) evolution is change in the properties of populations of organisms ..., over the course of generations. The development, or ontogeny, of an individual organism is not considered evolution: individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are ‘heritable' via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportions of different forms of a gene within a population, such as the alleles that determine the different human blood types, to the alterations that led from the earliest organisms to dinosaurs, bees, snapdragons, and humans.
Douglas J. Futuyma (1998) Evolutionary Biology 3rd ed., Sinauer Associates Inc. Sunderland MA p.4

Why Do Students Skip Lectures?

There's an interesting article on student attendance at lectures in the latest issue of BAMBED (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education): Engagement of students with lectures in biochemistry and pharmacology.

The authors surveyed students to find out why they skipped classes at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. The answers they give are not surprising, especially for the 8AM biochemistry lecture. However, the really interesting finding is that there's hardly any correlation between the number of lectures attended and a student's final grade in the course. The slight difference could easily be due to motivation and not ability to master the material.

This is a common finding in studies like this and the paper provides several references to the pedagogical literature. (In fairness, there are some studies that show a more significant correlation—students who skip classes get a much lower grade than those who attend.)

Here's my take on the issue of skipping lectures. If the lecture doesn't provide any value in terms of your final grade then why waste time going to class? Why bother giving the lecture?

I'd like to see a study comparing attendance in a course that has adopted student-centered learning where the class time is devoted to explaining difficult concepts and helping students think critically. The exams and assignments would have to measure whether students have mastered the concepts and learned how to think critically about the subject. In an ideal course, a student shouldn't be able to pass if they've skipped most of the lectures. What would attendance look like in such a course?

If students are skipping your lectures and still getting good grades then it's time to change your course. If you can't, or won't, do that then just cancel the lectures. You could record them and put them online if it makes you feel better. Your students are clearly not getting anything of value from sitting in the classroom.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Monday's Molecule #189

Last week's molecules were cis Δ9-octadecanic acid (oleic acid) and trans Δ9-octadecanic acid (elaidic acid). Last week's winner was John Runnels. He should email me.

Name this week's molecule. Be sure to give an unambiguous name—it can be the common name or the IUPAC name. Why is this molecule important in some species?

Post your answer as a comment. I'll hold off releasing any comments for 24 hours. The first one with the correct answer wins. I will only post mostly correct answers to avoid embarrassment. The winner will be treated to a free lunch.

There could be two winners. If the first correct answer isn't from an undergraduate student then I'll select a second winner from those undergraduates who post the correct answer. You will need to identify yourself as an undergraduate in order to win. (Put "undergraduate" at the bottom of your comment.)

Friday, October 05, 2012

An Online Course for Intelligent Design Creationists

About 99% of all books and posts by Intelligent Design Creationist consists of criticisms of evolution—which they mistakenly refer to as "Darwinism."

What this usually reveals is that the typical IDiot doesn't understand evolution. But there's at least one Intelligent Design Creationist who recognizes that this is a problem. Jonathan McLatchie (Jonathan M) recommends that his colleagues take an free online course in order to learn about evolution [Free Online Course: Introduction to Genetics and Evolution]. He writes,
Critics of modern evolutionary theory have an intellectual responsibility to strive to understand the paradigm that they are critiquing, preferably to a level where they can clearly articulate the key propositions of evolutionary theory and offer a standard defense of them.

Richard Hoppe, at the Panda’s Thumb blog, drew my attention to a free online course on the subject of genetics and evolution. You can, as I have done, sign up for (and read about) the course at this link.


I particularly recommend that those among us who don’t have a strong biology background take this course. It is very important that we ID proponents make sure we have a robust grasp of what evolutionary theory is saying and why it says it, so that no one can say we haven’t given it a fair hearing.
Wouldn't it be nice if most IDiots followed Jonathan McLatchie's advice? In just a few months they could learn that modern evolution and genetics includes all sorts of things that Darwin never knew! Imagine what a relief it would be if they stopped referring to us all as "Darwinists" and started to understand that evolution is a fact.

Not holding my breath.

Visiting the Grand Canyon

Last week we took a helicopter from Las Vegas to Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. Check out the photos on Ms. Sandwalk's blog: The Magic Canyon Ride.

Online Training of Competent, Employable, Bioinformatics Professionals

I think that undergraduate education at most universities is done very badly. There are far too many courses that consist of professors giving standard lectures to large classes with evaluations focused on "memorize and regurgitate" exams. Most courses pay no heed to student-centered learning even though there has been sound pedagogical research showing that student participation leads to better learning. Most courses and programs provide no "value-added" component that takes advantage of being physically located in an enriched scholarly environment. Most courses do not teach critical thinking.

Given the horrible status of most university courses, it's not surprising that they can be replaced by online courses where the student never needs to set foot on a university campus to get the same quality of education. This is not an endorsement of online courses, it's a comment on the poor quality of campus-based courses.

David B. Searls is an "independent consultant" who published an article in PLOS Computational Biology: An Online Bioinformatics Curriculum.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Carnival of Evolution, Number #52: the Network Edition

This month's Carnival of Evolution is hosted by Sam Wise at SOS Presents%mdash;the Carnival of Evolution #53. Read it at: Carnival of Evolution, Number 52 — the Network Edition
Welcome to the 52nd edition of the Carnival of Evolution, hosted here at The Genealogical World of Phylogenetic Networks blog.

For those of you not familiar with the Carnival of Evolution, at the beginning of every month the Carnival provides a collection of some of the most interesting of the recent blog posts about biological evolution. The Carnival is hosted by a different blog every month: last month's Carnival can be found at The Stochastic Scientist blog; and next month's Carnival will be hosted by the Sorting Out Science blog at the beginning of November.

The theme for the presentations this month is, of course, phylogenetic networks. You can skip straight on to the blog posts if you are familiar with such networks.
There's some cool stuff this month, including a summary of the ENCODE/junk DNA fiasco.

The next Carnival of Evolution (September) will be hosted by Sorting out Science. If you want to volunteer to host others, contact Bjørn Østman. Bjørn is always looking for someone to host the Carnival of Evolution. He would prefer someone who has not hosted before. Contact him at the Carnival of Evolution blog. You can send articles directly to him or you can submit your articles at Carnival of Evolution.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Reddit: We are the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Consortium.

There's been a lot of talk recently about the discussion on reddit concerning the ENCODE publicity fiasco.

Here's the forum ...
AskScience Special AMA: We are the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Consortium. Last week we published more than 30 papers and a giant collection of data on the function of the human genome. Ask us anything!
It's interesting to see how some of the consortium members are responding to criticism. My personal view is that none of them seem to be very knowledgeable about genome biology and the work that has been published over the past 40 years.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Monday's Molecule #188

Last week's molecule was N-formylmethionyl-tRNAfMet [Monday's Molecule #188]. Only three people came close. The winner was Mikkel Rasmussen.

Name these molecules. One of them has a well-known common name that you have to include in your answer. The other one also has a common name but you don't have to find it. You have to give the complete formal names of each molecule. Do you know the significance of these two molecules?

Post your answer as a comment. I'll hold off releasing any comments for 24 hours. The first one with the correct answer wins. I will only post mostly correct answers to avoid embarrassment. The winner will be treated to a free lunch.

There could be two winners. If the first correct answer isn't from an undergraduate student then I'll select a second winner from those undergraduates who post the correct answer. You will need to identify yourself as an undergraduate in order to win. (Put "undergraduate" at the bottom of your comment.)