Anti-evolution bills put healthcare at risk

My Turn: The Darwin connection | Concord Monitor.

While researching some points for my article on intelligent design, I stumbled onto a poignant and pointed article written by Leslie Brunetta, a New Hampshire science author  who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.  She wrote the interesting (and very readable) book entitled, “Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating.”

Her thesis is that these anti-evolution bills in various state legislatures are a danger to her health, and by inference, the health of all Americans.

Essentially, she states that in the 1960’s, breast cancer was basically a death sentence, whereas today, the 5 year survivability for a woman diagnosed with breast cancer is over 80%.  Partially, the rate has risen because of better and earlier diagnosis, but mainly it is a result of highly effective treatments.

What does evolution have to do with this?  Plenty.  At even the most basic level, the discovery of DNA, which is essential to understanding any of the 200 different cancers, was driven by the need to uncover the basis of genetics and heritability of genes.  Would we have discovered the DNA molecule if we weren’t driven by the desire to understand the foundation of evolution?  Probably not.

Furthermore, Ms. Brunetta posits that everything from understanding the differences between cancer and normal genes to family history all depends upon a scientific foundation of evolution.  She states that now we have genetic tests (arising from our knowledge of evolution) that can help determine which treatments are best for certain types of breast cancer, allowing some patients to forego chemotherapy.

What if we didn’t understand evolution?  We wouldn’t understand that viruses evolve quickly in a population, so we have to adjust vaccination antigens.  We wouldn’t understand how bacteria evolve in response to antibiotics.  We wouldn’t understand the range of genetic diseases that afflict individuals.  I could write for hours on everything in medicine (and just medicine) that depends on an appreciation, and acceptance, of the theory of evolution.  I wonder what the creationists would say if we were to refuse them all procedures and techniques that use evolution (well, I know what the answer would be, that a supernatural being guided the research or something similar).  Of course, the Hippocratic Oath would prevent physicians from implementing this policy.

I’ve contended that the anti-science (anti-evolution) push on the right wing is bad for the security and economy of the country.  Let me add in healthcare to the consequences of this desire to push religious teaching in public schools.

Addendum:  Ms Brunetta points out something about Charles Darwin that is always forgotten but is critical.  He theorized evolution and natural selection with no knowledge of genetics and DNA (the cause of genetic drift).  Amazing leap of intuition on his part.

Intelligent design in 2012

Since the start of the new year there seems to have been concerted effort in several midwest US states, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Indiana, to circumvent the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution by pushing creationist religious dogma in public schools (though not universities thankfully).  It’s difficult to understand what the goals of this push might be, since nearly all legal precedent supports the fact that creation science, creationism, intelligent design or whatever new term that will be invented is religious doctrine and cannot be taught in public schools.  Maybe Republican state legislators think the winds are at their back in making social change, or maybe they think the winds are shifting into their face, and so they should get moving before the electorate (which seems to be extraordinarily volatile these days) changes its mind again.

Creation science attempts to use science to validate the Genesis story of creation while simultaneously endeavoring to invalidate all the general scientific theories, facts, and paradigms that support the natural history of the universe including evolution, abiogenesis, cosmology, and astrophysics.  Intelligent design (ID) is a slightly different flavor of creationism which states that features of the natural world, whether living things or physical processes, are best explained by an intelligent designer.  In other words, the central mechanism of evolution is not explained by natural selection and genetic drift, but by a designer.  ID also attempts to state that it is a scientific theory based on evidence, rather than a religious dogma based on no evidence.

Neither can be regarded as real science because they fail to meet even the most basic elements of science and the scientific method.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the scientific method is: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”  It’s the “modification of the hypothesis” that separates real science from pseudosciences like creation science and ID.  In other words, if we could falsify the central premise of either so-called theory, would the proponents modify their hypothesis?  That would mean that there is no supernatural being that created or designed the universe, which they are mostly unwilling to do.

On the other hand, real science is open minded about the itself.  It is willing to change its hypotheses and theories, to evolve (couldn’t resist) to new data points.  That is precisely why science is not a religion, but is, in fact, an essential philosophy to understand the natural world.  It is based on evidence, on analysis of that evidence, and, if necessary, modification of theories based on the evidence.  Scientists consider evolution to be a fact based the wealth of evidence supporting it.  The theory of evolution is one of the basic principles of biology (along with genetics, homeostasis, and cell theory), but if there were data that essentially disproved evolution, then science would modify the theory.  There is an old joke that if someone found a rabbit fossil in precambrian rocks, science would probably have to reevaluate and rewrite the theory of evolution.  However, most real scientists would be skeptical and wonder 1) if it really were a fossil, 2) if it were really a rabbit, 3) if it really was a precambrian rock layer, and 4) if it isn’t a hoax perpetrated by someone with an anti-science agenda.

But what is really problematic is that ID itself attempts to promote itself as a scientific theory where the designer is not the Judeo-Christian god.  The Discovery Institute, a Seattle based think-tank, is the primary proponent of ID.  They state that intelligent design is:

Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago. 

Setting aside the fact that their so-called science doesn’t meet the basics of what constitutes real science (or the fact that they generally accept the age of life on earth), they go to great lengths to avoid naming the designer.  However, it has been determined that, despite the best efforts of the intelligent design movement, the designer represents the Judeo-Christian god.  Many have concluded that intelligent design is pseudoscience rather than just bad science.

Furthermore, the ID proponents use the so-called “wedge strategy”, a plan sponsored by the Discovery Institute, to further their political goals. The strategy was established in a Discovery Institute manifesto known as the Wedge Document, which describes “a broad social, political, and academic agenda whose ultimate goal is to defeat materialism, naturalism, evolution, and reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”  In other words, it’s just religious dogma couched in scientific words that have little meaning.

Intelligent design and creation science are not only dangerous to scientific teaching, which is critical to the future of our country.  To continue to be leaders in medicine, research, new technologies, and whatever results from them, the country needs to have students with strong foundation in the sciences.  These anti-science legislators are almost anti-American (to play the “who’s more patriotic” card).  And if you take the long-term view (a rare skill indeed in our politicians), lack of science training could be a huge economic issue (still playing that patriotism card).

This current push for creationist teachings is still centered in one part of the country in just a few states.  Even if its reach is limited, let’s hope it can be crushed out before it gets too much traction in other Republican dominated state legislatures.

Mounting opposition to Indiana’s creationist bill

Mounting opposition to Indiana’s creationist bill | NCSE

Indianapolis

Missouri and Oklahoma have been at the forefront of the 2012 Republican push to add anti-science curriculum to public school science curricula in the form of creationism (apparently in the guise of Intelligent design).  These initiatives fly in the face of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US constitution, which simply states,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

Over the years, several court rulings have clarified this clause to cover any public institution, such as publicly funded schools.  The Supreme Court of the United States has affirmed lower court rulings that specifically state that the teaching of creationism in public schools violates the Establishment Clause.  In McLean v. Arkansas, the judge ruled that creation science is not science because it depends on a supernatural intervention; in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court affirmed a ruling that a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of “creation science”  was unconstitutional because it advanced a particular religious viewpoint; and in Kitzmiller v. Dover, a district court judge ruled that Intelligent design was another form of creationism (read that as religion).

So despite those very solid legal precedents, Indiana’s Senate Bill 89 will force public schools to teach creation science (which isn’t a science, other than incorrectly using the word science).  Opposition to the bill is starting to appear, including religious individuals who find that creation science is “propounding pseudoscience of their own invention that is neither biblical nor scientific…”

It is ironic (or just plain cynical) that the same individuals who profess that there is some magical quality in the US Constitution are also the first to push laws that are in clear violation of one of the most basic tenets of that same constitution.

 

Rosa Rubicondior: Where Creationists Get Confused.

Rosa Rubicondior: Where Creationists Get Confused..

Modern Tree of Life

Creationists utilize numerous logical fallacies to either “disprove” evolution (using rhetoric and religious text) or to “prove” creationism.  Usually, however, they stick with trying to showing how evolution is wrong, thereby, implying that creationism is correct.  (I’m going to set aside the fallacy that by simply disproving evolution one proves creationism, you still have to provide evidence for creationism itself.)

I could list them all from “it’s only a theory”, which ignores the fact that a scientific theory stands at the top of hierarchy of scientific thought, essentially considered a fact, to Charles Darwin renouncing evolution on his deathbed, which he didn’t.  One of my favorites is the wholesale misunderstanding (either intentionally or through complete ignorance of science) of taxonomy.  As Rosa Rubicondior states:

Creationists, either disingenuously, or because of genuine ignorance, seem to have missed the whole point of taxonomy, so they continually make idiotic mistakes which, even though they might imagine them to be valid arguments against evolution, are recognised by those who understand the subject as evidence only of their ignorance. And, with so much information readily and freely available, this ignorance can ONLY be either deliberate or feigned. No one remotely interested in the subject has any excuse for their level of ignorance.

If any has ever heard the creationist meme of “if man evolved from apes, then why are there apes still around,” then you would understand the statement above.  Simply put, man evolved from a primate common ancestor (which lead to all the great apes, including chimpanzees and gorillas) about 4-8 million years ago.  The common ancestor is not around, but human primate relatives do.  In biological terms, the divergence into the various great apes (Family Hominidae) is quite recent.  The evidence is not based on supposition and guesswork, there are vast amounts of scientific literature supporting this family tree.

I find these types of arguments from creationists show a complete lack of knowledge of biological sciences, except at the most superficial level.  If one looks at the tree of life as a bunch of endpoints without understanding how the tree is built.  Of course, if they read these posts from Rosa Rubicondior and others, they would understand it.  But I guess I’ll have to agree with Rosa:

Even more unforgivable are those who assiduously maintain their own ignorance by refusing to read anything, like this blog, which might cause them to abandon their cherished beliefs, for these are the people who are quite deliberately and consciously fooling themselves into believing what they know to be false.  These will be the ones who are constantly asking what they like to think are the ‘killer knock-down’ questions of biologists and who then ignore the answers and ask the same questions again next week.  You only need to read their sanctimonious condescension and pretence to have greater knowledge than the scientists who spend years learning and researching the subject, to see what they are getting out of their intellectual dishonesty.

I wish there were creationists who actually had a scientific background (and there are a few), because the debate is just dull with those who are not.  Their knowledge of science is so lacking that I wonder if they consider how much evolutionary science is built into the medical care they receive.  Of course, I guess that’s why faith healing exists.

Oklahoma bill attacks evolution and climate change

Oklahoma bill attacks evolution and climate change | NCSE.

Not only is the sixth evolution denialist bill proposed by state legislatures since the beginning of the year (which is about 3 weeks long so far), it throws in climate change denialism for good measure.

Josh Brecheen, the sole sponsor of the bill, states that:

“Renowned scientists now asserting that evolution is laden with errors are being ignored. … Using your tax dollars to teach the unknown, without disclosing the entire scientific findings[,] is incomplete and unacceptable.”

Which renowned scientists?  Are there any?  Almost every scientist (renowned or otherwise) accepts evolution as a virtual fact.  Academic freedom means that a teacher teaches science (or history or whatever the discipline) without interference from government.  So, does the Department of Biology at the University of Oklahoma teach Intelligent design as a scientific theory?  It isn’t.

Glad I live in California.  This stuff just doesn’t happen here.

Update from Missouri | NCSE

Update from Missouri | NCSE.

The chief sponsor of this bill says the “jury is still out on evolution.”  Uh, what jury is that?  The one in Kitzmiller v. Dover, where a Federal Judge ruled that Intelligent Design is not science?  Or the scientific community that say’s evolution is basically a fact?  Or that intelligent design was “designed” to circumvent the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

In case anyone forgot, that clause states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

So, Intelligent Design is a religious doctrine.  The State of Missouri (well, at least some do) want to have that religious doctrine taught in public schools (run and funded by the State of Missouri).  Sounds like they might have a legal challenge ahead.

“Intelligent design” bill in Missouri | NCSE

“Intelligent design” bill in Missouri | NCSE.

Not that anyone needs reminding, but just in case, Intelligent design is not scientific, it is not a scientific theory, and it is religion.  In Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, the US District Court held that:

Teaching intelligent design in public school biology classes violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (and Article I, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania State Constitution) because intelligent design is not science and “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

It cost the Dover Area School District over $1 million to defend this lawsuit, money that probably could have been spent on textbooks, teachers, and new computers.  I believe in the aftermath, all school board members who supported the teaching of Intelligent design were ousted by voters.  That’s how democracy I suppose.

The bill states:

If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a course of study, biological evolution and biological intelligent design shall be taught. Other scientific theory or theories of origin may be taught.

Just a tiny point, and I can’t expect much out of Missouri’s legislators, but the theory of evolution does not discuss the origin of life.  The theory of abiogenesis does, and that’s more chemistry and physics than biologists.  Biological evolution, or modern evolutionary synthesis, is based on a mountain of evidence.  The theory isn’t used in the sense of a random guess, but a scientific one with a foundation in scientific method and piles of evidence.  It is falsifiable (but has not been falsified) and has itself evolved into a power predictor of how populations of organisms change over time.

Intelligent design is not falsifiable (in that it requires an all powerful creator) and is not scientific.  It is based on no evidence, just ideology and rhetoric.  It fails as science once the bright light of criticism is shone on it.

Well, I don’t know how Missouri’s legislature is organized, but I hope they’re intelligent enough not to do this.  But if they do, expect several lawsuits.  And they’ll lose them all.

Polling pastors on evolution | NCSE

Polling pastors on evolution–National Center for Science Education

There are a few interesting points regarding this poll:

  • The poll was commissioned by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, a rather conservative Christian denomination.  I’m concerned about the inherent bias.
  • Protestants in various parts of the country have different beliefs about science and evolution.  This poll may be biased towards Southern US churches, where more literal beliefs in biblical myth is more prevalent.
  • Of course, this polling does not include anyone outside of the US.
  • The first question was “I believe god used evolution created people”.   About 24% agreed with that, over 72% disagreed.  Of course, that’s a loaded question, because a pastor might accept evolution and not think a god was involved, but it’s hard to tell without the real data.
  • Interestingly, only 46% thought the earth was 6000 years old, whereas 43% disagreed (although, not sure if they thought it was 4.5 billion or something else).
  • One minor, but very annoying point.  One does not believe in evolution, since belief implies acceptance with or in spite of evidence.  Evolution is a theory (and in science, a theory is essentially a fact) based on mountains of evidence.  It does not require evidence, it requires acceptance of the evidence, or rejection of the evidence based on denialism, ignorance, or belief in an alternative explanation–or all three.

There are churches that accept evolution as is.  Jews, Catholics, and most mainstream Protestants (such as Anglicans) were, of course, excluded from this poll, and would have skewed it toward “pastors” supporting evolution.  Of course, anti-evolution (or evolution denialism) is so prevalent these days, we probably shouldn’t be surprised by this poll.

By the way, if you aren’t, follow the National Center for Science Education.  They keep everyone updated on important issues in science education in the USA.