Thursday, December 29, 2005


Editorials on Intelligent Design in Utah

I spent the Christmas Holiday with my folks in Utah. While I was there I made a habit of checking the editorial section (my favorite) of local papers for articles on intelligent design. The results are below. I've limited them to articles that came out post-Kitzmiller. I haven't posted any of my comments on the articles. I'm trying to put together something similar for other Western states, but I have to say that outside of Utah I'm pretty unimpressed with the online versions of local papers (outside of California - the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News do a pretty good job).

Pro-Intelligent Design

A mature world
Salt Lake Tribune, Letter to the editor, 12/26/2005

Schools are not Congress
Salt Lake Tribune, Letter to the editor, 12/26/2005

Darwinian Luddites
Salt Lake Tribune, Letter to the editor, 12/25/2005

Evidences of intelligent design all around us
Standard Examiner, letter to the editor, 12/25/2005

Hard to believe Earth came about by chance
Standard Examiner, letter to the editor, 12/22/2005

Evolution arguments filled with inaccuracies
Standard Examiner, Letter to the editor, 12/21/2005

Designed rocks
Salt Lake Tribune, Letter to the editor, 12/20/2005

Anti-Intelligent Design

Just teasing
Salt Lake Tribune, Letter to the editor, 12/27/2005

Intelligent design is about God and religion
Standard Examiner, Letter to the editor, 12/26/2005

Thomas: Court's decision is a wake-up call for parents of faith
Salt Lake Tribune, Editorial, 12/25/2005

Faith and schools don't mix
Deseret News, Letter to the editor, 12/24/2005

Don't expect Intelligent Design advocates to stop trying to dish out their phony baloney
Salt Lake Tribune, Editorial, 12/23/2005

Madison had no kind words for Christianity
Standard Examiner, Letter to the editor, 12/23/2005

An intelligent ruling
Standard Examiner, editorial, 12/22/2005

Intelligent design is religion, not science
Standard Examiner, letter to the editor, 12/22/2005

Intelligent Design: Anti-evolution movement is plainly religious in purpose
Salt Lake Tribune Editorial, 12/21/2005

Cognition increases with brain complexity
Standard Examiner, Letter to the editor, 12/21/2005

Saturday, December 24, 2005


Buttars’ New Evolution Bill

After reading stories on the bill in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, it seems to me that Buttars is trying to take something like a “teach the controversy” approach when teaching evolution.

Buttars is quoted in the Deseret News:

"It doesn't hinder them about talking about evolution at all," Buttars said. "They can talk about evolution from the Big Bang or life crawled out of the slime somewhere. But what they can't do is . . . tell students, 'This is how it happened, how you became man, you evolved from an ape.' That is all I asked the State Board of Education to do in the first place, and they thumbed their noses at me.
"You don't know how life began; nobody does in the scientific community," Buttars said. "Therefore, you can only teach these things as theories. It's a small step, but it's a big step, and I can pass this bill."

“The proposed bill begins with a statement:
"In order to encourage students to critically analyze theories regarding the origins of life or the origins or present state of the human race, consider opposing viewpoints, and to form their own opinions, the Legislature desires to avoid the perception that all scientists agree on any one theory or that the state endorses one theory over another."”

Also from that story:
“When asked if it opens the door to intelligent design discussion, Buttars said: ‘I'm staying right out of that.
"This does not talk about intelligent design, this does not talk about faith-based theories," Buttars said. If teachers do talk about it, "they're on their own risk, aren't they," he said. "I'm talking about the scientific community and two things they do not know regarding evolution.’”

State officials responded:
“"It is a bill trying to force intelligent design on the school districts through the State Board of Education, when the state board has voted unanimously against imposing it as a scientific theory. I think he believes that by not saying (in the bill) science classes and not saying intelligent design that it's somehow constitutional," said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education. "My (bottom line) is, the state board still has constitutional issues."”


“But the proposal concerns state curriculum director Brett Moulding.
"The bill avoids talking about specifically the theory of evolution or intelligent design, but it's clear it's asking for other theories to be discussed, and there are many, many theories about the origin of life that have no scientific basis," he said.
While the bill is silent on intelligent design, Lear notes Buttars has discussed that concept at length, and she said the courts have considered discussion leading up to bills in determining a law's constitutional muster.
"I don't want to put words in his mouth. I'm just saying his comments before certainly factor into this discussion and the constitutionality of this bill. And he hasn't been subtle . . . in his desire to promote, and he has called it, intelligent design," Lear said. "He believes in it. This is just sanitized language."”

From an article in the Salt Lake Tribune:

“ Lear warns that while the bill doesn't directly mandate the teaching of intelligent design, Buttars' past statements could be used against
him if the bill became law and were challenged in court.
"He has been very clear he likes creationism theories and intelligent design theories. Just because now this bill is sanitized doesn't take it out of the arena of constitutional challenges,"”

Buttars is trying to make his bill survive by making it very vague. If he wants teachers to tell students that “scientists” don’t agree on “any one theory” he’s going to have to specify what those other “theories” are. That will lead to intelligent design/creationism, which will make it clear the bill is in violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment. I really hope someone asks him what other theories he has in mind. I think it’s very clear from his past statements that he’s pushing intelligent design.

Just as in Dover case, Buttars past statements and pieces of legislation can be used as evidence of his intentions regarding this bill. If he denies his religious motivation, I think it’ll be straight forward to show he’s wrong (it’s really hard to come up with any other meaning of “divine design”).

I’m also frustrated that Buttars is misusing “theory” (confusing the scientific and vernacular usage), and is equating the origin of life with evolution. All in all he hasn’t come up with a very strong bill. All of the angles he's taking (disclaimers, teach the controversy, etc.), have already failed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Evolution in Utah (post 2 of 2)

Evolution in Utah part 2 of 2

People like Utah state senator Chris Buttars may get a fair bit of attention when they talk about plans to introduce legislation to downplay evolution (deservedly so, I do think this is a very newsworthy topic). There are also people in Utah who oppose such attempts.

“ Scott Berryessa, president of the Jordan Education Association, representing about 2,100 teachers, says he more often gets complaints from students and families upset that divine design is mentioned in the classroom.”
(From this article in the Salt Lake Tribune that I referred to in part 1).

I’m very happy to hear that students and their families are complaining when “divine design” is mentioned in the classroom. At least it doesn’t belong in the science classroom, although I can certainly see a reasonable case for it to be included in some sort of social studies class.

Opposition to teaching intelligent design/creationism isn’t anti-religious. This quote from a story by KSL Local News very nicely illustrates that:

"Board member Bill Colbert said he personally believes in intelligent design, but thinks it should not be taught in schools.
‘I believe it needs to be taught in the home and perhaps, religious institutions," Colbert said. "It's a personal issue. Even if we try to teach it in a classroom, (I don't think teachers) can do justice to various beliefs that are out there in our communities.’”

I respect Colbert’s opinion. Intelligent design is an inherently religious proposition (detailed very nicely in Dover verdict), and so can’t be taught without violating the Establishment Clause – teaching intelligent design in public schools amounts to an endorsement of religion by the government. The fact that intelligent design is religious doesn’t mean that it’s invalid – noting that it’s unscientific isn’t the same as saying that it’s worthless (the judge in the Dover case was also careful to mention that he wasn’t ruling on the validity of intelligent design).

The Deseret Morning News also ran a very interesting story that included results from a poll about peoples’ thoughts about teaching intelligent design and evolution, and their religious impacts.

In that story a former science education specialist, and curriculum director for the Utah State Office of Education is reported as being able to “. . .count on his fingers the number of anti-evolution phone calls he's gotten in the past 10 years.” According to a poll of 624 Utahns conducted by a local paper and TV station 64% of Utahns want evolution taught in biology classes, while 70% want creationism taught as well. In addition 44% of Utahns think evolution is definitely or probably incompatible with a belief in God, while 47% think otherwise (and 9% are undecided). This article reports that teachers can, but don’t have to, talk about human evolution, and many choose to omit it to avoid creating controversy. The article quotes Duane Jeffery, a biology professor at BYU states “probably 90 percent of people who are LDS think the church is against evolution. But they don't get upset about it being taught in public schools.” He says the reason for this is that this is what students learn in LDS Seminary (a period of religious instruction that students in 9-12th grade can opt to take). I wrote yesterday about an LDS friend of mine who told me that seminary instructors were told not to take a position one way or another. Unfortunately at the moment that’s really just hearsay. From this article it sounds like some (many?) seminary instructors are going beyond that. Dr. Jeffery also wrote a book “Evolution and Mormonism”

From those poll results, the other stories I referred to, and my personal experiences I think there are:

1) People who view evolution as scientific and intelligent design as religious, and don’t want intelligent design taught as science (this category includes both religious and irreligious people).
2) People who view evolution as scientific and intelligent design as religious, but want intelligent design taught anyway.
3) People who view both evolution and intelligent design as scientific, and want intelligent design taught.
4) People who view both evolution and intelligent design as religious, and want intelligent design taught.

Overall, I’m fairly encouraged by those results. I’d say most of the 70% of respondents who want both creationism and evolution taught fit my category 3 or 4, while the 44% who think accepting evolution is incompatible with a belief in God fit category 2 or 4. As you can probably guess, I think the category 1 people have the right idea. I think there’s a fair bit of misunderstanding about the religious implications of evolution (i.e., evolution = atheism), and this is fueled by organizations like Focus on the Family (more on this later), and people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. The easiest way to refute that notion is to point to organizations like the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), which doesn’t take an official stand on the issue, but whose membership includes a lot of Christians who accept evolution (more on this later too). I think it’s hard to claim that evolution is religious when adherents of many different religions, as well as agnostics and atheists accept evolution. I don’t see how someone could reasonably claim that there’s a Religion of Evolution in light of that observation. I think if more people were aware of this, some of the 70% who want creationism taught would change their mind.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Centennial of 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

There is an increasing amount of activity in the Bay Area due to the approaching centennial of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The Great San Francisco Earthquake occurred at 5:12 AM on April 18, 1906. On that day a 290 mile long section of the San Andreas fault moved (from Cape Mendocino in the north to San Juan Bautista in the south). The magnitude 7.7-7.9 quake and the following fire resulted in at least 700 deaths, and more likely 2000-3000. For comparison the well-known 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake had a rupture length of around 25 miles and a magnitude of 7.0. Earthquakes like the 1906 event happened in the past, and they will happen in the future. The plate motions that caused earthquakes in the past are still occurring. The Pacific plate is still moving north relative to the North American plate, and most of the motion is taken up by a fault that is a member of the San Andreas system. If an event like the 1906 earthquake were to occur today an estimated 155,000-160,000 households (not people) would be displaced, with the potential for great loss of life.

The 1906 Earthquake Centennial Alliance is a coalition of a huge number of universities, federal, state, and local governmental bodies, museums, parks, and businesses. This alliance hosts speakers, puts together museum displays, and so on. It’s well worth visiting their website if you live in an area that’s prone to earthquakes (or if you’re curious about places like that).

The San Andreas fault generally gets most of the attention, but there is the potential for large earthquakes on other faults in the Bay Area. There is a 62% probability of an M6.7+ in the Bay Areas in the next 30 years. The Hayward Fault has the highest probability of generating such an event (27% compared to 21% for the San Andreas). The last big earthquake along the Hayward fault was an M6.9 in 1868. The Association of Bay Area Governments offers a lot of resources about earthquakes in the Bay Area. You can look up maps of predicted ground shaking or liquefaction potential for your neighborhood for example. You can also learn what you can do to be prepared for an earthquake. Reading Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country is also a great way to learn what you can do to protect yourself.


Decision in Kitzmiller vs. Dover School Board

I've spent a few hours today going over Judge Jones' opinion. I've copied quite a lot of it (18 pages in Word so far). I'll post some of those quotes, along with my comments at some point. The verdict can be downloaded here).

The decision could not have been better for the Plaintiffs.

Here are the conclusions:

“The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or
disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID. We will also issue a declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs’ rights under the Constitutions of the United States and the
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have been violated by Defendants’ actions. Defendants’ actions in violation of Plaintiffs’ civil rights as guaranteed to them by the Constitution of the United States and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 subject Defendants to
liability with respect to injunctive and declaratory relief, but also for nominal damages and the reasonable value of Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ services and costs incurred in vindicating Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.“

Monday, December 19, 2005


Evolution in Utah (post 1 of 2)

Evolution in Utah (post 1 of 2)

Utah state senator Chris Buttars has been the primary driving force behind attempts to legislate the teaching of intelligent design in Utah. Buttars was first elected in 2001, is from West Jordan, graduated from Utah State University (Go Aggies) with a B.S. in Marketing/Economics, and is on the state senate education committee. I first became aware of Buttars this summer when I read about his attempt to have what he called “divine design” taught alongside evolution. According to the Salt Lake Tribune Buttars thought he’d avoid controversy by avoiding mentioning creationism. Apparently he thought that substituting “divine design” for creationism would keep religion out of the picture. “The only people who will be upset about this are atheists.” I’m not clear why he thinks something called “divine design” isn’t inherently religious. I have a hunch he thought that by explicitly avoiding mentioning the Bible he could get around the Establishment Clause. This is the approach taken by legislators from Arkansas in the early 80s. They introduced the " Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act" which required that creation science be taught alongside evolution. Creation science included the same beliefs about evolution and the age of the earth as biblical creationism (discussed here), but avoiding explicitly mentioning God or the Bible. That wasn’t enough for the U.S. District Court judge who presided over McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education. He ruled that “creation science” wasn’t actually science and violated the Establishment Clause. So, if Buttars is going down that same path, it’s going to be a very short show – his bill will quickly be shot down if it ever gets passed.

As I mentioned in this post, the Utah state school board wasn’t very keen on Buttars’ bill. Buttars was discouraged, but he’s certainly persistent. In November Buttars told the Utah Eagle Forum that he would introduce another bill on evolution. In contrast to the proposed bill from this summer Buttars wouldn’t give many details about the bill, other than it was ‘confidential’ and ‘prioritized.’ He did say that he agreed with the “. . . president of the United States that intelligent design should have an equal position,” (see here) but that he wasn’t sure he would be espouse that view in his bill. He did say that he would require the state school board to reword it’s position statement (the one I mentioned in my post from Dec. 18), and that he would require teachers to read some sort of statement before teaching about evolution (which sounds quite similar to the situation in Cobb County, Georgia to me). I’m anxiously awaiting the moment when Buttars makes his bill public.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Science in Utah

Most of this post is going to be anecdotes about me growing up in Utah, and my experiences with science education in that state.

According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Utah (scroll down) gets a "C" on its state science standards. This is considerably better than many states (most notably Kansas, due to the recent appalling behavior of members of the state board of education). According to the Fordham Institute "Utah's best showing is in the life sciences" although the physical sciences don't fare as well. I'm proud of Utah for their good showing in the life sciences, but naturally I wish they'd scored higher in the physical sciences (I am, afterall, a geologist). I grew up in Utah; I graduated from high school there and I was an undergrad there. I think educators in Utah generally do a good job teaching life sciences, and evolution in particular. This may suprise some people, who assume that since Utah is such a religious state they must be anti-evolution. I took AP biology in high school, and I'm happy with how evolution was taught. My teacher mentioned religion too - at the start of the class he said that he didn't think being religious necessarily conflicted with accepting evolution. I also had a life sciences class and an earth science class in junior high, and I don't have any complaints there. Granted, these are just the experiences of one person, and I definitely did meet people who were hostile to conventional science, but I haven't encountered any serious organized resistance to the teacing of evolution or conventional geology.

This is probably a good time to mention Chris Buttars, a state senator who wants to teach "divine design" in Utah schools. Buttars was unequivocally rebuffed by the state school board. From that article:

"As a fundamental scientific concept, evolution is a necessary part of science classroom instruction, and it will continue to be taught and progressively refined as a key scientific principle."
"Teachers should respect and be nonjudgmental about (student) beliefs, and teachers should help students understand that science is an essential way of knowing. Teachers should encourage students to discuss any seeming conflicts with their parents or religious leaders."

I wouldn't be surprised if Buttars continues to pursue "divine design", but I would be very surprised if his efforts get anywhere. The LDS church isn't hostile to evolution and geology. Actually, while I was growing most of the opposition to evolution and geology that I encountered came from Protestant Christians. As a senior in high school I went to a talk at my local (Baptist) church about evolution. I wasn't very impressed, the speaker made quite a few very poor statements including "punctutated equilibrium is defined as a lizard giving birth to a chicken" (I'm paraphrasing). His talk wasn't very popular with the leadership of the church, mainly because he said that in order to be a Christian one had to be a creationist. To my knowledge the church hasn't hosted a similar speaker in the 12 years or so since I attended that talk (although they do link to a few young earth creationist sites on their web page).

I'm not LDS, but much of my family is, and many of my close friends are. I'm told that in LDS Seminaries the instructors are told not to take a position one way or the other about evolution. This isn't quite the position I wish they'd take, but it's much better than being hostile to evolution. There are undoubtedly members of the LDS church who are young earth creationists, but I don't think they're the majority, and quite honestly I'm not sure this is the case with most Protestant Christians in the US.

I wonder if part of the reason Utah is fairly friendly to geology is that there's just so much of it there. Faults, mountains, canyons and dinosaurs may be distant things to the people of Kansas, but they're in your backyard (more or less) in Utah. That's probably just wishful thinking on my part.

I haven't lived in Utah for a long time, but I still feel the need to stick up for that state from time to time. I think Utahns get more grief than they deserve.



I've certainly heard of Wikipedia, but I hadn't visited there until a couple of days ago. I was prompted to visit that site after reading about an article from the journal Nature that compared the accuracy of the Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia. According to that article 42 entries from both Britannica and Wikipedia were sent to relevant experts, who found an average of 3 inaccuracies per entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica entries, and only 4 per entry in Wikipedia. I think that's really impressive.

With the results of that study in mind I visited Wikipedia to check out a few entries on geology. I started with the San Andreas Fault, which was generally well-written, and I was very surprised to see a link in that article to an entry about the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth (SAFOD). For the non geology geek SAFOD is a very new project that involves drilling a hole across an active part of the San Andreas Fault at a depth of around 3 km. The second phase of drilling was only completed late this summer, so I was really surprised to see it mentioned on Wikipedia at all, and again the article was pretty good (and naturally better after a bit of editing on my part). SAFOD isn't mentioned at all in the online Encyclopedia Britannica (at least in entries that can be viewed for free - there is one hit on "SAFOD" in something in the members only section, but not being a member I don't have access).

So, I'm favorably impressed with Wikipedia for 4 reasons:

1) I'm impressed with their accuracy relative to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
2) I'm impressed with the breadth of material on Wikipedia.
3) I'm impressed with the speed/responsiveness of Wikipedia.
4) Wikipedia is free.

I'm going to start contributing to Wikipedia. I think it has a lot of potential.

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