Monday, October 10, 2005

Teacher refuses 'intelligent design' statement, etc

Here are science news items with my comments in square brackets.

Teacher refuses 'intelligent design' statement, MSNBC, Dover teachers question concept's scientific validity ... Oct. 7, 2005 HARRISBURG, Pa. - A high school biology teacher testified Thursday that she and her colleagues refused to read a statement on "intelligent design" in class because they questioned the concept's scientific validity. In a landmark trial over the Dover Area School Board's decision to include reference to intelligent design in its biology curriculum, teacher Jennifer Miller testified she didn't see the concept as a viable scientific alternative to the theory of evolution. "It would misrepresent the importance of the theory of evolution to our students," said Miller, one of a group of teachers who presented a memo to the district asking to be excused from reading the statement on intelligent design. She said that mentioning intelligent design would be contradictory in science class because it wasn't a legitimate scientific theory. Under a policy approved by the school board in October 2004, students must hear a brief statement about intelligent design before classes on evolution. The statement says Charles Darwin's theory is "not a fact," has inexplicable "gaps," and refers students to a textbook called "Of Pandas and People" for more information. ... Miller said she and other teachers knew before the October 2004 board meeting that the school was considering using "Of Pandas and People" in class as a companion to the regular biology textbook. Although the teachers agreed to use it as a reference book - hoping such a compromise would end a debate over how they taught evolution - they did not want intelligent design included in the biology curriculum, Miller said. "We thought that if we compromised, maybe this will go away," she said. In his cross-examination, Patrick Gillen, an attorney representing the school district, asked Miller to confirm that school board member Alan Bonsell had sought legal advice from the district's solicitor, who issued a written opinion that intelligent design "could be presented legally." "I'm very confused as to what it said, even to this day," Miller said, citing "legal jargon" in the solicitor's memo. Bertha Spahr, a chemistry teacher who heads the high school's science department, testified that she stated during the October 2004 board meeting that the teachers did not support discussing intelligent design in class. "We never compromised on the issue of putting intelligent design into the curriculum," Spahr said. Spahr is expected to return to the witness stand Wednesday for cross-examination by the defense. ... [Also at Livescience. Although I believe that intelligent design is true and naturalism is false, along with the leadership of the ID movement I do not support ID being made mandatory and therefore that no teacher should be forced to teach ID if they have an objection to doing so. In the long run I believe most teachers will want to teach ID (even though they disagree with it), but it is probably too hard for many of those whose training has been entirely within the Darwinist paradigm to accept ID as science. However, in the interim I believe that more about evolution should be taught, including its philosophical assumptions, its problems, evidence against it and the major controversies among evolutionists.]

Educators Eye 'Intelligent Design' Trial, Los Angeles Times/AP, October 9, 2005, Martha Raffaele ...HARRISBURG, Pa. -- As a federal judge hears arguments over whether a Pennsylvania school district can include "intelligent design" in its biology curriculum, Dan Barbour fears the New Mexico high school where he works could face a similar showdown. The school board in Rio Rancho, N.M., voted in August to allow the discussion of alternative theories to evolution in high school science class. Critics say that could mean intelligent design, and some faculty are averse to teaching a concept whose scientific validity has been questioned, said Barbour, the school's science and math director. "The thing that makes me nervous is that in the classroom a teacher is to be unbiased, but students are allowed to express their opinions. Can a teacher remain unbiased? Can we keep it from becoming a preaching session?" he said. Science educators around the nation are closely monitoring the trial, which involves eight Pennsylvania families who have sued to have intelligent design removed from the Dover Area School District's biology curriculum. They allege that it is essentially a religious concept akin to creationism, and teaching it violates the constitutional separation of church and state. "If the door is open for non-scientific viewpoints to be addressed ... I would imagine it would make some (teachers) rethink their profession," said Cindy Workoski, spokeswoman for the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va. ... Rick Cole, a science teacher at Los Lunas High School in Los Lunas, N.M., taught the concept alongside evolution in biology class for 11 years, but was ordered last year to stop after a parent complained to the principal. The teachings avoided religious discussions, Cole said. According to student surveys he collected throughout the time he taught intelligent design, 98 percent of the nearly 1,000 students he taught preferred a side-by-side presentation, he said. "When it comes to the origin of life, it's been very much a closed market, and no opportunity to consider alternative explanations," said Cole, who hopes to add intelligent design back this year. "The majority of science teachers choose to avoid the subject because of the controversy; they would just rather not even teach it." Intelligent design and other alternative theories became part of a high school social studies class in Columbus, Ind., after 1,300 residents petitioned the school board in 2002 to give creationism equal time with evolution. Greg Lewis, social studies department chairman at Columbus East High School, developed a Human Origins class as an elective. Aside from a few media calls, he hasn't received inquires, he said. The class isn't being offered this year due to low enrollment, but it will always remain a part of the curriculum, he said. "We're still fairly as committed to the course as I can be. As a social studies teacher, I'm very aware of the First Amendment," Lewis said. ... [Also at ABC News , The Boston Globe& Washington Post. Again, even if ID was "akin to creationism" (and it is not: for starters, ID is based on the evidence of nature, whereas "creation" is based on the Bible) then ID would not be "creationism" and so teaching ID would not "violate... the constitutional separation of church and state." Personally, I would be happy with a compromise that ID be taught in social studies classes (e.g. "teach the controversy"), rather than science classes. But then the Darwinists should not be allowed to refer to ID (or creation) in science classes.]

4 scientists hit genius jackpot 3 from UC Berkeley, Stanford biochemist awarded $500,000 by MacArthur fund, San Francisco Chronicle, Jim Doyle, September 20, 2005 ... Four Bay Area scientists -- three from UC Berkeley and one from Stanford -- have won the prestigious 2005 MacArthur Foundation "genius awards," the foundation announced Monday. The four are among 25 winners nationwide and include a geophysicist studying earthquakes and volcanoes, a molecular biologist exploring how prehistoric single-cell organisms evolved into animals, a neurobiologist investigating learning and memory and a biochemist developing new methods for synthesizing drugs ... Each will receive $500,000, with no restrictions on how the money is spent. ... Nicole King is exploring the pre-historic evolution of single-cell organisms to animals. "I call myself an evolutionary biologist," King said. "My main focus is the origin of animals, everything from sponges to jellyfish to more complex organisms like insects. ... One thing I'm trying to do is reconstruct the genome and the biology of the first animal." For her doctorate at Harvard, she studied how the bacterium Bacillus subtilis forms spores. These days, the UC Berkeley biologist is studying choanoflagellates -- a single-cell organism believed to most closely resemble the unicellular ancestor of animals. This microscopic creature is abundant in the ocean. "We think that the choanoflagellates and animals split from each other over 600 million years ago," said King, 35. "So we are learning as much as we can about choanoflagellates and sponges, the earliest evolving animals. Sponges give us insight into the minimal set of genes required for an animal. "I think the question of where we came from is huge, and by we, I don't just mean humans, but all the multicellular life on earth," said King .... "To me, there's great meaning in understanding the series of events and the process that unfolded in life history." ... [Agreed that the fact that "Choanoflagellates are almost identical in shape and function with the choanocytes, or collar cells, of sponges" and "Choanoflagellate-like cells are also found in other animal phyla ... in flame bulbs that act as excretory organs" is good evidence for a shared common ancestry between sponges, single-celled choanoflagellates, and multicellular animals.]

Life beyond Earth? Potential habitats in the solar system keep popping up, Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 2005, Peter N. Spotts ... It's an ice-encrusted munchkin of a moon, only 314 miles in diameter. Its face is so smooth and nearly crater-free that it probably got a facelift. It's a satellite of Saturn, called Enceladus, and the latest hot spot in the quest to answer one of astronomy's most intriguing questions: Is there life in the solar system beyond Earth? Where once scientists set their sights on Mars as the most likely place to hunt for such evidence, their list of potential habitats now includes at least five others: three moons of Jupiter and now Saturn's Titan and Enceladus. This expanding list is due, in part, to more data coming from spacecraft scouting Earth's extended neighborhood. It also stems from a better understanding of how life can exist in extreme environments. To be sure, any inhabitants scientists find would most likely be microbes, not little green men. And the case for such biological havens is far from ironclad. "There's always a big caveat," says David Grinspoon, a planetary geologist ... "We're profoundly ignorant about what makes a good habitat, since we only know of one place for life" - Earth. Still, researchers have learned a great deal about the weird environments harboring life on Earth. Thus, "when we explore in depth with an orbiter and really hang out and get to know the place, we find pockets in the system that might be promising for life," Dr. Grinspoon adds. "The Saturn system is turning out to be surprisingly fecund." The list of potential habitats began to expand with the Galileo mission to Jupiter in the 1990s. That mission added three Jovian moons to the list: Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Now, the US-European Cassini mission to Saturn has added the moons Titan and Enceladus. For astrobiologists, the Cassini mission's biggest surprise yet is Enceladus. Researchers had already inferred from Voyager 2's flyby in 1981 that its smooth surface meant it had gotten a facelift, perhaps 100 million years ago. Fresh material from beneath its icy crust welled up and spread across the moon. But that in turn implied heat to generate slush or liquid water - and no one could figure out its source. Fast forward to 2005, when Cassini stunned researchers with infrared images of a hot spot on the surface at the moon's south pole. Hot, in this case, is still frigid: minus 183 degrees Celsius (minus 297 degrees F.). But that's 20 degrees warmer than the surrounding area. The polar area also is scarred with cracks that release water vapor and tiny ice crystals. Researchers estimate that some of the formations are only 10 to 1,000 years old. ... And Cassini scientists have uncovered simple organic molecules in the cracks of Enceladus. .... Enceladus apparently has the fundamental chemical recipe for life, says ... planetary scientist Robert Brown ... The moon has simple organic molecules, such as methane, ethane, and ethylene. Scientists see tantalizing hints of nitrogen. It hosts liquid water below the surface. "Add a pinch of phosphorous," Dr. Brown says, and you have all you need to make DNA - or perhaps some other DNA-like molecule capable of carrying information. At Enceladus, this stew would have had plenty of time to simmer for 4.5 billion years and "form some of the most basic building blocks of life," he adds. It's not clear that's happened at Enceladus, he says. "But if we're going to run all over the solar system looking at places where those constituents have been for the past 4.5 billion years and where the cocktail might have cooked into something interesting, then Enceladus has to be part of that mix." As does Titan, adds Grinspoon. .... "What do you need for life? You need an energy source, liquid reservoirs, and you need some basis for complex chemistry," he says. "Does Titan have what it takes? The answer is: yes." ... [Personally I think these astrobiologists are deluding themselves if they think that life could originate and exist on a moon that is "only 314 miles in diameter" and the hottest spot on its surface is "minus 183 degrees Celsius (minus 297 degrees F.)"! Or maybe it is just salesmanship, given Bada's observation that "scientific curiosity alone likely cannot explain the explosive growth of astrobiology. ... one of the field's attractions [is] ... money--and lots of it" (Bada J., "A Field with a Life of Its Own," Science,7 January 2005, p.46)]

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

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