Best of Pharyngula: Praise for the Platypus

May 10, 2008

Whatever you think of PZ Myers, his writing on biological topics is indispensable when it comes to correcting common misunderstandings and misrepresentations about evolution. His latest article, dissecting the newest draft of the platypus genome and its implications for evolutionary taxonomy, is a must read.

The platypus used to be a favorite of creationists: it was a supposed chimera of different animal kingdoms and supposedly a startling mystery for evolution’s picture of common descent. These days, however, creationists have mainly given it up as a lost cause: getting exposed as so wrong, so many times, gets humiliating. Instead, it’s the modern news media, always awash in its rarely updated panoply of stereotypes and clichés, that still gives us breathlessly confused descriptions of the platypus as a “part bird, part reptile and part lactating mammal.”

Understanding what the various “strange” features of the platypus really are and how they fit into the larger history of mammals is essential for anyone who wants to understand how evolutionary biology really works.


A Brief Hiatus Ceases

May 6, 2008

After being away in the wilds of woolly New England, I’m back. Lest you think I rested on my laurels, I’m working on a review of David Berlinski’s “The Devil’s Delusion” (in which Berlinski, quite astonishingly, calls people other than himself pretentious) and a series of full-frontal assaults on some of the baddest of the bad ideas when it comes to moral philosophy and theology.

My favorite story that I missed while away? A substitute teacher in Florida was apparently accused of wizardry by a supervisor after performing a sleight-of-hand magic trick with a toothpick.

Wizardry.


Why “Where is the ACLU??” Often Ends in Intellectual Tragedy (Islamic School Edition)

April 10, 2008

The ACLU is not a perfect organization (though given that they are not monolithic, it’s hard to generalize). But by and large, they have the right idea about religious liberty, especially when it comes to preventing governments from superseding the rights of citizens to observe or not observe whatever religion they see fit and protecting private religious expression from government interference.

Unfortunately, there are a whole host of (mostly) conservative bloggers out there who seem incapable of distinguishing government action from private freedoms, and who rather ridiculously assert that the ACLU is out to destroy religious practice, rather than protect it from the government. Of course, the big problem for such people is simply all the rather awkward evidence to the contrary. What’s a crank conspiracy-theorist to do?

Well, luckily, they’ve hit upon a stopgap defense mechanism: anytime they come across a potential infringement of free speech or religious expression, an regardless of how much time has elapsed, whether anyone has even notified the ACLU, what the actual facts of the case are, or even if some other organization is already providing counsel, they cry “Where is the ACLU?!!” The implication is, of course, that the ACLU is deeply hypocritical: that their conspiracy isn’t savvy enough to at least pretend to care about this or that free speech/religious expression issue.

The problem is that this rallying cry so often ends in embarrassing tragedy. The latest case in point involves an Islamic school, sponsored by the government, which has apparently been caught coercing its students to pray, amongst other things. Part-time culture-warrior William Wallace raised the predictable cry: Where is the ACLU Now?

Where is the ACLU? The ACLU was all over the Dover PA school district for merely suggesting that life might have been designed by some unidentified creator as a violation of the so-called separation of of church and state. But here in Minnesota, it is “halal” (kosher) to fund Islamic schools.

This righteous outrage lasted for precisely one day, until a commenter happened to stop by and link to a letter from the ACLU to the school, asking them to stop exactly the practices that Mr. Wallace was complaining about. Oops.

And if that weren’t ridiculous enough, the letter is nearly a month old. So it’s Mr. Wallace that’s late to game in condemning the school: the ACLU might well have run their own blog entry entitled “Where is William Wallace on this issue, hunh?!?”

Mr. Wallace’s response?

The letter you cite is very interesting, in that is very friendly. It is as though the ACLU wants to teach the school how to continue to be a public Islamic school.

I’ll analyze the letter in more detail later; might make for an interesting blog.

This is what’s known as “changing the goalposts.” First the ACLU was evil because it was supposedly ignoring the controversy as part of some crafty plot to promote Islam and destroy Christianity. But when that implication became both ridiculous and even anachronistic, suddenly the ACLU is instead bad because their letter warning the school to stop its unconstitutional religious endorsement doesn’t call Muslims enough racial slurs in the process, or something.

I almost can’t wait for Mr. Wallace’s ‘analysis,’ but I suspect it may be delayed until he finds some means to remove the egg from his face.

More: If you’re interested in a vastly more sane analysis of the Islamic Charter School issue, Hemant over at Friendly Atheist has the goods.


The 4th Wave of Creationism: Guerrillas for God

April 5, 2008

As Ed Brayton at Dispatches notes, we now have at least six US state legislatures that are either considering or have already passed so called “academic freedom” bills: Louisiana, Missouri, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama. In various forms, they all claim to protect teachers from any repercussions for teaching what they term “scientific weaknesses with evolution.” The insincerity of this sudden concern for “academic freedom” is obvious, given that the bills do not protect teachers from teaching children about, say, birth control or 9/11 conspiracy theories. Only the usual stalking horse of conservative creationists is fair game for fifth-grade science teachers.

With so many similar bills appearing in such a short time, all with such similar language and intent, it’s pretty clear that we’re seeing a new phase of in creationist efforts to attack evolution in public school science class. For those unfamiliar, the first three main phases have been Creationism proper, Scientific Creationism, and Intelligent Design, all as outlined in this Dispatches post. The phases have all overlapped to some extent (most obviously in the recycling of many of the same arguments), and advocates of prior phases all remain, though often strategically friendly to the newest effort. But this 4th phase doesn’t go under any sort of banner or title: and that, in fact, is the whole point.

Read the rest of this entry »


Eight-Year-Old Sniffs Marker: All Hell Breaks Loose

April 4, 2008

Zero Tolerance has struck again: eight-year-old Eathan Harris was recently suspended for the dastardly crime of realizing that Sharpie markers smelled sort of neat.

“It smelled good,” Harris said. “They told me that’s wrong.”

Well, they could have just told him. They could have just told him that it was a dumb idea, like sticking your pencil up your nose. Instead, they reacted as if he had been caught downing a malt liquor.

In his letter suspending the child, Benisch wrote that smelling the marker fumes could cause the boy to “become intoxicated.”

Really? And what do the experts say about this fear?

A toxicologist with the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center says that claim is nearly impossible.

Dr. Eric Lavonas says non-toxic markers like Sharpies, while pungent-smelling, cannot be used to get high.

So, the voice of reason has spoken. The principal’s fears were unfounded, and given that his harsh treatment was based on those fears… oh, who are we kidding:

Adams County School District 50 leaders were unfazed by the poison control center’s medical opinion. “Principals make hundreds of decisions everyday based on our best judgment. And in that time, smelling that marker, I felt like, ‘Wow, that’s a very serious marker,’” Benisch said.

Yes, people do indeed get called to make decisions on their best judgment. But sometimes they are wrong. And maybe, in those cases, it would be nice to, maybe, correct the judgment after the fact, or apologize, don’t you think?

Nah…

I still find it amazing that we still live in a world in which people can happily, and without automatically feeling like fools, be unfazed by reality. And watch out folks: because that marker means business.

Note: Emphasis added to quotes. Emphasis is nearly always added. By me. In fact, if there is every emphasis that I didn’t add, how about I tell you THAT instead.


Creationists In Action, Preying on Children

March 23, 2008

Despite his pleasant-sounding name, the Friendly Atheist has a real mean streak sometimes, like when he tricks readers into watching things that will make them ill:

Imaging calling yourself an “educator” when you spend your days looking children in the eyes and tell them things like “Fossils are usually boring because they are made up of dead things” or teaching them to recite dogma like “How do you know?” over and over instead of spending time at least mentioning (even if they don’t agree with it) how scientists do, in fact, claim to be able to know.

I’ve got nothing against homeschooling as an educational philosophy: heck, if you can really spend that amount of one on one time to educate your kids, that’s awesome, and certainly has the potential to really help them excel. But when it becomes an excuse to spread and maintain ignorance instead of informing them about the world they live in, it really starts to strain the meaning of the word “education.”


Florida Creationists Want a License to Lie, Egged on by Ben Stein’s Expelled!

March 11, 2008

Florida Republican creationists, hot of their self-bamboolzement in the recent science standards debate, are now attempting to pass a bill that purports to defend academic freedom in public high schools. Lawmakers are even getting a special (closed to the public!) screening of Intelligent Design agitprop doc Expelled! to help them “consider the issues.”

But just what is the bill in question, and what does it do?

Read the rest of this entry »


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