Mass Media Funk is a commentary on mass media stories about the scientific, the paranormal, the supernatural, and anything else that yanks at my eyebrows.

Robert Todd Carroll

ęcopyright 2006





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South Dakota first in line to bring back government intrusion and take away another freedom

March 3, 2006. South Dakota's legislature passed a bill in February that would make it a felony for anyone to perform or have an abortion except when the mother's life is in danger. On March 6th, Governor Mike Rounds signed the so-called Women's Health and Human Life Protection Act into law.

After the confirmation of Samuel Alito, it was only a matter of time before one of the states banned abortion to test Roe v. Wade. The new law is blatantly unconstitutional and will be challenged in court. Anti-abortionists are counting on Alito, Chief Justice Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas to vote to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision that ordered the government not to intrude in people's lives in this very personal area of reproductive decision-making. The Rehnquist Court asserted-Rehnquist and White dissenting-that a woman has a right to privacy in making the decision to have or not have an abortion and that until her third trimester of pregnancy states cannot deprive a woman of her right to an abortion. Of course, the recent changes in court composition give only four strong votes to the anti-abortionists, so they are counting on either Souter, Kennedy, or Stevens to side with them to make it a majority. (The two justices appointed by Bill Clinton are unlikely to argue for overturning a precedent of 33 years.)

My suggestion is that if a state wants to ensure protection from government intrusion in our reproductive lives, it should enact laws that assert the right to privacy in reproductive decisions, rather than assume that since the right is protected by Roe v. Wade, there is no need to stipulate this right in state law. That precedent may be overturned, if not by the present court then by some future court. Since legislators are probably not going to carry forth such a bill, it will have to be up to the people to do so by the initiative process. If you think intelligent design v. evolution was ugly, this one will be make that fight look like a daisy party.

I do not support abortion (whatever that means) and I would like to live in a world where no abortions occur. I don't think we (as a people, not the government) do enough to provide adequate education and contraceptive assistance to young women and men. If a woman is pregnant due to rape, it should be her decision whether to carry the fetus to term or to abort. And a rape victim surely should have access to plan B, which is being denied to many women because of the so-called moral beliefs of people in the Bush administration. Plan B is not an abortifacient and should be made available over-the-counter, according to FDA scientists but not according to FDA bureaucrats. Reproductive decisions should not be made by the government moral police. People should be free to make such decisions for themselves and consult medical professionals for assistance. We have enough government intrusion in our lives. We've seen how easy it has been for the government to wiretap our phones and access our library records. How much more privacy are we willing to give up? If the government can tell a woman she can't have an abortion today, what is to stop that government from telling her she must have an abortion tomorrow? The best way to stop abortions is not to pass laws that give government more power to interfere with our freedoms. The best way to stop abortions is to provide access to accurate educational materials and programs, including contraceptive information and materials, to our citizens. The best way to stop government from intruding in our private lives is to pass laws forbidding them from doing so. It is a mistake to expect the Supreme Court to make rulings that extend to the people freedom from government invasion of our lives. If we want less government regulation and interference, we will have to take matters into our own hands and initiate laws that protect us from further abuses of power.


Sacramento Zoo takes on the ID folks

February 23, 2006. There were marked cars of uniformed police officers parked by the zoo entrance. The zoo had hired two off-duty police officers for security. What was going on? A terrorist threat? No. The Sacramento Zoo was hosting the first of three pro-evolution lectures that were designed to put the intelligent design (ID) folks in their rightful place outside the halls of science. Apparently the zoo folks expected a bunch of ID nutters to disrupt the proceedings, but only four "protestors" showed up to pass out literature against evolution and for the Bible.

Earlier this month, when it was announced that these lectures would be given, I sent in my dues and became a member of the Zoological Society once again. I was especially impressed by the words of Executive Director Mary Healy and  a longtime zoo board member and volunteer Lois Chappell. Both emphasized that the zoo is a science education facility and they did not even consider inviting an advocate of ID to speak. "Intelligent design is not part of our curriculum," said Chappell.* Zoo leaders want to provide their volunteer docents with a good grounding in the science because the docents are likely to be peppered with questions when they make claims that touch on evolution. And Robin Whittall, the zoo's education director and lecture series organizer, said: the zoo chose the topic because "evolution is ... the unifying theme of [the] biological sciences. ... It's part of who we are as science educators at the Sacramento Zoo."*

The lecture series has sold out for this season. The zoo's modest facility holds about 100 people. In past years, a good turnout would be 60 to 70.

Maureen Stanton, chairwoman of the department of evolution and ecology at the University of California at Davis, opened the lecture series last night. In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, she said she believes that it's confusing to mix talk of divine creation with science. "There is no reason that deep religious belief cannot co-exist happily (with science)," she said. "Science has nothing to do with the existence of God. It is a question that falls outside the realm." Her hour-long talk explained why intelligent design is not science.

Whittall didn't know what to expect last night because she "has spent much of the past month answering telephone calls and e-mail messages from area residents upset that the zoo has taken the position that intelligent design is not a viable scientific theory" (Sacramento Bee). It seems her worries were for nothing. The audience inside provided no hostile disrupters thumping people over the head with brand-new Bibles.

One person asked: "What is the harm in teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in schools?" Stanton replied: "If we put intelligent design ideas in the classroom, we are misleading students about what scientific inquiry really is. It's really important for kids to realize that science is a narrow field that operates by a set of rules, and falsifiable hypotheses is one of those rules." She added, however, that believing in God and accepting evolution are not contradictory.

In Stanton's talk she took up one of the favorite examples of the ID folks to support their belief that some aspects of life are too complex to be explained by the forces of natural selection and genetic mutation that drive evolution: the eye.

What good is a partial eye? an ID devotee might ask. Plenty, an evolutionary biologist might answer. The human eye divides the labor for its many processes into many functions, involving different pathways to the brain and different brain processes. For example, we can detect motion but not color with peripheral vision. Some animals can detect motion but not much else. Frogs won't eat dead flies, even if it means starvation. Their vision system evolved to react to motion, not "flies".

Stanton noted that "We see all sorts of organisms that have light-sensitive organs that are not fully functional eyes." In mollusks, for example, biologists find everything from mere "eye spots," composed of groups of light-sensitive cells, to advanced eyes with lenses that form images.*

Stanton also provided evidence of evolution in the remnant pelvic bones of whales and snakes, which suggests they are distantly related to animals with legs. She connected this to the human pelvis with its "holdover of a tail," the tailbone.

"There are some rare mutations that suggest the genetic machinery for a tail still exists," Stanton said. She then showed a slide of a child from India born four years ago with a tail.

According to the Sacramento Bee's Edie Lau, Stanton said: "While there's abundant evidence for evolution, no physical, measurable evidence exists of intelligent design, and that is why it doesn't qualify as science." Stanton also noted that the debate over evolution is not happening in mainstream science circles. (See my SD entry on intelligent design.)

"If we were to discern in the DNA of flagella [in bacteria] the Book of Genesis, I'd believe" intelligent design, Stanton said.

One of the attendees seems to me to be the typical Christian opponent of evolution. He identified himself as a senior at Elk Grove High School who had attended the talk with his advanced-placement biology class. "I really don't believe in evolution," he said. "I'm Christian, so I believe in my faith." In other words, I don't have to think about this because I accept what my religious group tells me is true in such matters. That kind of fideistic irrationality pales in comparison to the inanity of one who goes on to claim that even so his view is the scientific one and evolution is a delusion, as did one of the fellows passing out pamphlets in front of the zoo.


Some words of wisdom

Virtually any academic discipline can be used as an anti-religious battering ram: history, literature, economics, art, etc. But such confrontation is not inherent in the disciplines. Nor is it inherent in science. Science is neither theistic nor atheistic; it is non-theistic, just as are mathematics and statistics.

Deity is simply not subject to scientific analysis, and science cannot address the issue directly at all. Many evolutionary scientists have deep religious faith and hold their views in science because of the overwhelming mass of evidence that undergirds modern evolutionary biology, not because of some alleged theological fear. Further, many religious leaders find no major difficulty between their faith and evolutionary science, as ... Evolution Sunday celebrations across our country attest.

--Duane Jeffery, integrative biology at Brigham Young University



Science and Religion: Incompatible?

February 20, 2006. At their annual meeting, the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a press release yesterday denouncing legislation and policies that would undermine the teaching of evolution and "deprive students of the education they need to be informed and productive citizens in an increasingly technological, global community."

"We are not rolling over on this," said Alan Leshner, the association's chief executive and publisher of the journal Science. "It's too important to the nation and to the nation's children." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it this way: "With the fervor of preachers and the drive of generals, scientists from across the country rallied against what they describe as religious pressure in public schools. And they enlisted the help of hundreds of teachers."*

Not only did the Board of Directors warn against pending anti-evolution legislation in 14 states, it asserted

The sponsors of many of these state and local proposals seem to believe that evolution and religion are in conflict. This is unfortunate. They need not be incompatible. Science and religion ask fundamentally different questions about the world. Many religious leaders have affirmed that they see no conflict between evolution and religion. We and the overwhelming majority of scientists share this view.

The AAAS Board statement was released in conjunction with "Evolution on the Front Line," a free program designed for K-12 teachers but open to scientists, policy-makers, students, and reporters as well. The program was organized by AAAS in collaboration with numerous educational and scientific organizations. This is the first time that teachers were invited to attend the association's annual meeting to speak against intelligent design. More than three hundred teachers attended. They reported being pressured by parents who insist they abandon high school biology texts in favor of biblical creationism or intelligent design.*

One of the presenters was Dr. George V. Coyne, Director of The Vatican Observatory, who titled his presentation: Is God a Scientist? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution. According to Coyne, the intelligent design (ID) movement belittles God. He called biblical literalism "a plague in our midst."* Science tells us about the universe but not about God. However, the universe tells Coyne that God is not an engineer but a loving parent. He must not be observing the same universe I live in.

According to the AAAS Board, "parochial school teachers often experience less pressure than their public-school counterparts to insert religion into science classrooms." One participant has been teaching biology for more than 25 years, but until she moved to a private school in Springfield, Ill., she wouldn't touch evolution in the classroom. For 18 years at a public school in Mason City, Ill., she just skipped the subject.

A seventh-grade science teacher at Humboldt Middle School in St. Louis said no one has told him not to teach evolution, but he feels it's clear that he should watch what he says in class. Another middle school teacher said that "every year a parent steps close, puts a finger to her nose and says she doesn't want her child to learn evolution."*

AAAS president Gilbert S. Omenn listed the following anti-evolution legislation currently pending: Alabama SB 240, Arkansas HB 2607, Georgia HB 179, Kansas SB 168, Michigan HB 5251, Mississippi SB 2286, Missouri HB 1266, New York 8036, Ohio HB 481, Oklahoma HB 2107, Pennsylvania HB 1007, South Carolina SB 909, Texas HB 1447 and Utah SB 96.

He called these legislative proposals "attempts to wedge religion-actually just one kind of religion-into science classrooms" and condemned them as "a disservice to students, parents, teachers and taxpayers."

"It's time to recognize that science and religion should never be pitted against each other," said Omenn. "They can and do co-exist in the context of most people's lives." But they shouldn't co-exist in science classrooms because that would just confuse our children.*

Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, said those in mainstream religious communities needed to "step up to the plate" in order to prevent the issue being viewed as a battle between science and religion.*

The AAAS announced the formation of a new organization of scientists, scientific groups, and supporters-the Alliance for Science-to combat the assault on science from religious conservatives. The new organization aims to create graduate fellowships, increase funding for research, train math and science teachers, and build tax incentives for research and development, said co-chairman Paul Forbes.*

Scott believes that ID is dead as a legal strategy, but it will continue to evolve as a social movement. Kenneth R. Miller, professor of biology at Brown University and a witness for the plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller case, says: "The new strategy is to teach intelligent design without calling it intelligent design....The advocates of intelligent design and creationism have tried to repackage their criticisms, saying they want to teach the evidence for evolution and the evidence against evolution."*

Miller is a Catholic evolutionary biologist. Clearly, he does not see evolution and religion as enemies. It is clear, though, that there is a vocal community of mostly fundamentalist young-Earth Christians who will probably never give up their arrogant belief that the vast majority of scientists are ignorant dogmatists who don't understand that the Bible should be everyone's guide to scientific truth. An example of this militant arrogance can be found in Ted Haggard, president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the largest evangelical group in America. Haggard's website notes that The Wall Street Journal noted his advisory role with the Bush White House and calls him one "of the nation's most politically influential" clergy.

Richard Dawkins interviews Haggard in a program he did for British TV called "The Root of All Evil?" In a recent interview with DJ Grothe of Point of Inquiry, Dawkins denies calling religion the root of all evil. The title was chosen by the producers, he says, against his objections. The question mark in the title, he says, was their only compromise. In any case, it is clear that Dawkins considers religion and religious faith great evils and as enemies of science. After hearing a clip of his interview with Haggard, it is not hard to understand why he might be so hostile to people of faith. Haggard, after making a comment about evolutionists claiming that ears and eyes "happen by chance accident" and after being corrected by Dawkins that no evolutionist he knows of makes such a claim, persisted in his blissful ignorance to declare that only some scientists think Earth is 4.5 billion years old and proceeded to deride Dawkins for his arrogance.

There may be 30 million who believe as Haggard does, but there are about that many Americans who have no religion* and there are probably at least that many Americans who think Haggard is a nutter. It is a mistake to identify all religions and all people of faith with young-Earth creationists, anti-abortionist terrorists who blow up clinics and murder doctors, or other fanatics like Pat Robertson. Most Christians aren't murderers and most Muslims are not ready to go to war or murder cartoonists for offending their religious sensibilities. There are plenty of religious people of all faiths who are sensible parents that would like their children to get the best science education possible. To assume, as Dawkins does, that to teach evolution is to teach atheism, or, as many atheists assume, that all religious people are nutters, is a surefire way to alienate those millions of religious people who accept evolution and who are potential allies in the fight against the anti-evolutionists.

I'm not saying atheists shouldn't critically evaluate religion or religious leaders. I agree with many of Dawkins's evaluations of religious notions, including his evaluation of the danger of promoting faith over reason. I think people like Haggard should be criticized for their irrational beliefs and for their defense of irrationality. In fact, since his views are the one's with the most political clout with the current administration, one might well consider it a patriotic duty to warn of the dangerousness of Haggard's beliefs and attitude. But the fact is that Haggard and his ilk are in the minority in this country. We don't have to hold hands, but atheists and theists working together must stop the Haggards and Discovery Institutes of this world from taking over our schools.

Those who would educate this nation's youth in the intricacies of evolution have their work cut out for them. Many come to them with dozens of false beliefs based on faith and considered infallible. The atmosphere is poisoned by such groups as the National Association of Evangelicals and the ID proponents, who insist that evolution is anti-religious because they consider their religion as the only religion that counts. Now, that's arrogance.

Genuine science never proceeds from, or uses as its starting point, any set of subjective "beliefs," "opinions" or "faith-based edicts" handed down by religious or secular authorities and proclaimed to be beyond human questioning, testing and investigation. To bring into the scientific process assumptions, religious or otherwise, which were not arrived at by scientific methods, and which by definition cannot be tested by scientific methods, would destroy science as science.*





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