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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Pat Boone on Evolution

This article was brought to my attention this morning. The article is written by singer/entertainer Pat Boone. Boone is a devout conservative Christian, a talented singer and father of Debbie Boone among others. What basis does he have to write about the supposed pitfalls of biological evolution? Zip, but in America knowledge of a subject is no barrier for an entertainer wanting to voice his views. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against anyone having an open forum, but a news agency might reasonably demand that a science writer have some knowledge about the article he/she is writing about. Not so for Newsmax! Let's look at some of the regurgitated gems trotted out by Mr. Boone:

But there's some absurd nonsense, not especially funny, being taught our school kids every day, in almost every school in America.

Darwin's theory of evolution.

Really Pat? What research led you to this brilliant conclusion? Was it some new scientific research? Some insights gained after reading the literature, doing some experiments and developing a deep understanding of evolutionary biology? Was it a conversation with one of the pre-eminent evolutionary biologists of our time? No, Pat tells us:

In one of his many excellent and substantive mailings, D. James Kennedy drew my attention to Tom DeRosa, who grew up Catholic in Brooklyn and spent his high school years at a Catholic seminary.

He was voted "Best Seminarian" in 1964, but one year later, instead of taking vows to enter the priesthood, he became an atheist.

His encounter with Darwin in college led to that decision. "There was a point where I became so rebellious that I yelled out ‘No God!' I remember saying ‘I'm free, I'm liberated,'" DeRosa recalled. "I can do what I want to do; man is in charge! It was pure, exhilarating rebellion!"

That rebellion soured after a while, and after 13 years as a respected public school science teacher, he experienced a spiritual awakening that completely changed his perception of existence — and science.

He's now founder and president of the Creation Studies Institute and author of "Evidence for Creation: Intelligent Answers for Open Minds."

Yes, this conclusion was reached after talking to religious leader D. James Kennedy who has no shortage of nonsensical rants about evolution. Open minds? Apparently Tom De Rosa is a real scientist. How do we know this? Because Pat tells us so:

Far from it; he became a real scientist, an honest seeker after truth who could look at facts without a predisposed belief and actually see the obvious all around us.

As a real scientist, he looked again at what he'd gullibly accepted in college. And, examining the prevalent claim that life "evolved" from molecule to man by a series of biological baby steps, tiny mutations over millions of years, he realized there is no historical evidence for that claim.

He writes, "Millions upon millions of fossils have been collected to date, but there is no evidence of transition fossils; that is, fossils of organisms in an intermediate stage of development between steps on the evolutionary ladder."

Just how honest a seeker was he? Well, his website tells us that he discovered that evolution was wrong when....

However, in 1978, he accepted Jesus Christ as Lord of his life. Soon after, he studied the area of Creation at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and has come to the conclusion that a lack of knowledge of the biblical account of creation is greatly responsible for many barriers that keep people from Christ.

Hmm, the conclusion came before the evidence. Like all good creationists, our 'real scientist' DeRosa came to his conclusion from looking at the data through cross-blinded glasses.

Pat Boone goes on a nonsensical tirade borrowed from various creationist tracts and shows that he is not interested in the truth, but merely acting as a celebrity mouthpiece for young earth creationism. You can read the entire article here (note that he promises this is just the beginning). Here are just a few of the wise lessons Pat gives us about evolution:

If all life on this planet were actually in a process of "evolution," would every species evolve in lock step, regardless of different environments? Or wouldn't there be all the intermediate steps still in evidence, at various places around the globe?
Wouldn't there be plenty of evolving apes, tending toward homo sapiens, in the jungles and rain forests, possibly developing verbal skills and capable of elementary math and reasoning?

Does this really require an answer? These are classicly stupid anti-evolutionary statements that have been shown to be wrong over and over and over. It seems that not only does Boone not know evolution, he does not know that apes do have communication skills and are capable of reasoning. No, he buys into the old canard "If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes around".

Boone does conclude with a statement that rings very true, but not for the reason he is implying:

This decades-long scavenger hunt, in which intelligent and educated seekers keep digging up artifacts to "prove" an un-provable and patently unscientific concept, is very much like the potato chip lady on the "Tonight Show": You see what you want to see. Whether it's there or not.

Boone wants to create a strawman of evolution so that he sees want he wants to see. I'll give you a hint Pat, the stuff you are seeing regarding evolution are simply false teachings. I suspect Pat Boone simply accepted what was being fed to him. He did not bother to fact check---after all these ARE Christian people. If I was able to ask Boone one question it would be the following: Do you think it is a good idea for followers of Christ to engage in false teaching? I suppose that if it leads people to the flock, lies and misrepresentation are just fine.


Joe Meert

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Evolution Sunday

February 11th is Evolution Sunday across America. I was invited to submit a commentary at my church and I post it here:

Genesis 1:

1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. 4And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. 5And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. 6And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. 7And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. 8And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. 9And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

Nearly every Christian and Jew has read this account of creation. The verses are among the very first that children hear in their bible study class and they are among the most recognized verses in the bible. They are also verses that can be used to generate tension between Christianity and science.

Today, in thousands of churches across the United States, people will be discussing these verses and the harmonization of science and religion. Dubbed “Evolution Sunday”, the day is meant to help people become familiar with the role of science in religion and the role of religion in science.

Tension between religion and science is nothing new. In 1632, Galileo Galilei delivered a letter to the Catholic Church describing a radical new view of our place in the cosmos. In the spring of 1633 Galileo was delivered to the church for his heretical view of heliocentrism. The church was livid that Galileo would criticize the biblical view of the Earth as the center of the Universe. The Church wrote:

“From which we are content that you be absolved, provided that first, with a sincere heart, and unfeigned faith, you abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church in the form to be prescribed by us. And in order that this your grave and pernicious error and transgression may not remain altogether unpunished, and that you may be more cautious for the future, and an example to others, that they may abstain from similar delinquencies’we ordain that the book of the “Dialogues of Galileo Galilei” be prohibited by public edict.”

Slightly before this, Martin Luther wrote of the cosmos:

“Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters... It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night... We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding."

We would look at the views of geocentricity and the firmament today as downright silly, but in historical context, Galileo had committed a grave sin against God, the Church and the Bible. What has changed since the days of Galileo?

There can be little doubt that modern scientific knowledge has led to improvements in our lifestyle and our understanding of the universe about us. It is also true that now, even in the 21st century, people still feel uncomfortable with the discoveries of modern science and take theological offense to some of the findings of science. Perhaps no scientific discovery seems more insulting to Christian thought than the notion of biological evolution. Ever since Darwin suggested that humankind and apes shared a common ancestry, various factions of the church have taken offense. In the 1920’s John T. Scopes was tried for teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee and to this day, certain religious factions hold that evolution is false and the earth is only 6000 years old. In fact, these same “Christian” organizations are also politically active trying to ban/alter books that teach a scientific view that is different from their reading of Genesis---in much the same way that the Catholic Church banned Galileo’s teachings. Others have tried to invent a new science called “Intelligent Design” in an attempt to force science into compliance with a narrow view of the bible. Although it hides behind scientific-sounding verbiage, Intelligent design is a scientifically vacuous political movement. The primary goal is aimed at establishing a theocracy in America and eliminating all scientific thought that is not in concert with the views of its ruling body. This is no different from the actions of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s time.

Why are the findings of science and religion seemingly at odds? If we share a common ancestry with other primates, does that somehow lessen our place in the world? Does it destroy the Christian need for salvation? These are deep questions and “Evolution Sunday” is about exploring the role of Christianity in science and vice-versa. It is my stance that science should not be viewed as a threat to the bible. The acceptance of heliocentrism, while radical at the time, did not result in the whole-scale abandonment of religion. The discovery that the earth was 4.5 billion years old rather than the 6000 years assumed by Archbishop James Ussher, did not cause a mass exodus from the halls of worship. The fact that all organisms on earth share the same essential biochemistry does not lessen our place in the cosmos. If anything, these similarities bind us to all life and help us understand our place in this universe. Science should not be viewed as a threat to Christianity or the bible and science most certainly should not be intimidated by Christianity. Frances Collins, head of the human genome project made this point in a recent interview with Christianity today:

“Yet it seems to be a pretty well kept secret these days that the scientific approach and the spiritual approach are compatible. I think we've allowed for too long extreme voices to dominate the stage in a way that has led many people to assume that's all there is. The thesis of my book is that there is no need for this battle. In fact, it's a destructive battle. And we as a society would be well served to recover that happy middle ground where people have been for most of human history.”

Evolution Sunday is about re-establishing harmony and mutual respect amongst science and religion. It is about the realization that knowledge of our evolutionary history is no more threatening to the Christian faith than is the knowledge that the Earth orbits the Sun.

Best Wishes

Joe Meert

Suggested Reading:

1. Collins, Frances. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

2. Miller, Ken. Finding Darwin’s God: A scientists search for common ground between God and Evolution.

3. Brockman, John. Intelligent thought: Science versus the intelligent design movement.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Flying Spaghetti Monster Challenge: Cash Prize!

The Blasphemy challenge encourages youth to announce on YouTube their disbelief in God as part of an effort to stop the religious indoctrination of children. The Blasphemy challenge requires the following:

You may damn yourself to Hell however you would like, but somewhere in your video you must say this phrase: "I deny the Holy Spirit."

Why? Because, according to Mark 3:29 in the Holy Bible, "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin." Jesus will forgive you for just about anything, but he won't forgive you for denying the existence of the Holy Spirit. Ever. This is a one-way road you're taking here.

The challenge is creating a lot of news and some hatred by Christians (see Fox News John Kasich). Kasich angers easily, but he is quite comical with his Heartland episode with Brian Fleming, the founder of the Blasphemy Challenge.

Not surprisingly, the religious right has countered the Blasphemy Challenge with a $25000 campaign called the "Praise the Lord Challenge". One of the 'challengees' (is that a word??) said:

"My purpose is to spread the Word and worship Him with every part of me," said one Praise the Lord Challenge respondent. "I've given Him my life, my heart, my very soul. I will never deny my Lord, my Father, my very reason to live."

Now, it seems to me that this quote reflects the reasoning behind the blasphemy challenge. Nevetheless, I'm a little pissed off that both sides are not acknowledging the one true leader of the Universe, the "Flying Spaghetti Monster". In order to overcome the blasphemy of the atheists and the christians, I have decided to fund a 2.6 million turkish lira (the old ones not the new ones) prize to the best youtube video pledging allegiance to the FSM. No doubt, one or maybe two of my 13 regular viewers will collect this award. In order to win, I will select the best YouTube video praising his noodly appendage. In order to win, your video may praise the FSM in whatever manner you choose, but it must contain the following phrase:

"I pledge my life to Pastafarianism and to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I will worship no other wheat products. His noodly appendage has touched me in meaningful and a few inappropriate ways".

Contestants may let me know when their video is posted. Selection of the winner will be based solely on my whims and particular mood at the time. The deadline for video submission is February 15th, 2007. If no one reads this blog or enters the contest, the prize money will be thrown in trash. To enter, please visit the following website.


Joe Meert

PS: Pirates and.. the preceding post contains some sarcasm, satire and humor... for those who are challenged on those fronts, please ignore!

Results from the Science Board

The National Science Board, which reports to the US National Science Foundation, commissioned a study on math and science education in the US. That report was released today. The National Science Board last reviewed the state of science and math education in the USA in 1983, so a fresh look was warranted. Some of the more interesting conclusions from that report:

1. The development of a single, national standard for the certification of schoolteachers in mathematics and science. Local school districts would not be required to hire only teachers who meet the certification requirement, but the federal government would provide extra money to districts that voluntarily adopted the standard, the report says.

2. Accreditors of college teacher-education programs should consider how well the programs prepare graduates to obtain the certifications, the draft recommends.

3. The document also calls for the development of a national set of standards for school curricula in mathematics and science, which the federal government would also promote through financial incentives. The No Child Left Behind Act requires each state to develop its own standards, and to begin testing students' achievement in them, starting in the 2007-8 school year.

4. Colleges could support those efforts by ensuring that the schoolteachers they graduated were prepared to teach in accordance with the national standards, the report says.

These recommendations all would seem to take us further down the road of 'teaching to a test'. I'm not sure that this is in the best interest of our educational system. I'm not opposed to testing, but I think too much reliance is placed on the testing game. Students coming out of high school are test savvy, but tend to lack skills in inductive reasoning and may even lack general skills in deductive reasoning. These students are good at repeating information back to you, but generally lack skills in making inferences based on limited datasets. Good standardized tests can test the ability of a student to make inferences, but are still limited by the ability to grade the tests in a quick fashion. Multiple choice questions are favored where only one answer is correct.
I agree that some form of a standardized test is needed to make sure that "No child is left behind", but I worry that testing encourages us to graduate a bunch of clones who are all at the same skill level (which unfortunately is too low!).


Joe Meert

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Hellfire and Damnation

It's Sunday and I'm curious. There is a discussion board called Internet Infidels that I frequent. The discussions are broad-ranging though I tend to stick to the evolution and science threads. Recently (well, actually it happens all the time), someone came on, linked to another site and challenged us to 'be crushed by the Lord'. Perhaps those exact words were not used, but that was the gist of the challenge. So, like a beetle being drug to the dung pile, I followed. That site is another wacko Christianity run amok website.
Now, I was raised in a Christian home. My father and mother were lay missionaries in Colombia. We lived in Bogota and worked in the poorer barrios for nearly 3 years. At no time was I ever told by my parents or the many devout people who worked with the mission that it was our way or hell. Yet, this far-right leaning website and others always trot out the 'You're going to die and start gnashing your teeth if you don't follow our view of Christianity. To which I would reply, "Who the hell wants to follow you?". I read things like this:

Whether you believe in God or not when you die "jmeert", you will bow your knees to Him on judgment day, and if you have not taken Christ as your Savior, you will IN FACT go where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

You see putting all your faith in the seen things of life is no excuse, because God has revealed Himself to you with what He has created. Even His eternal Godhead is seen in nature.

The problem with the science you use is this, you cannot study the realm of the unseen, and if there is a Higher Power in this realm and you die. What excuse could you give that He would justify you by?

To which I would (sarcastically) reply..What if I lose my teeth before I die? Will I still be able to gnash them? If I am able to gnash them, isn't that better than not being able to gnash at all? Anyway, it seems to me that the only reason to make such a threat is that the individual lacks the self-control to live a normal lifestyle without the threat of revenge by a god who would rather see you burn forever. Then again, that's just me.


Joe Meert

Friday, January 26, 2007

From the Deepest depths

to space. Today, a first in deep sea and space exploration. At approximately 2:30 pm est, biologist Tim Shank will place a call to Sumita Williams. Tim will be in the deep-sea submersible Alvin and Sumita is on board the International Space station. The call will be recorded. From the website:

He is two miles under water; she is 200 miles up in
the atmosphere. He works in a small, confined space, looking out
onto a vast, unpopulated expanse--and so does she. He is out of
the reach of sunlight, buried in a blanket of constant darkness,
she sees the Sun rise 15 times a day...if she has any time to
look for it. Both are explorers of the last frontiers.

Marine biologist Tim Shank, diving in the Alvin submersible,
will compare notes on life, science, and exploration with
astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams as she orbits on the
International Space Station.

Follow this link to hear the conversation and questions.


Joe Meert

Thursday, January 25, 2007

From the "What were they thinking files"

The University of Florida came out with a press release regarding home dishwashing sponges. The article said that putting a sponge in the microwwave for 2 minutes on high would sufficiently sterilize the sponge. Then, the complaints started to flow in. Apparently people were starting fires in their microwaves because they did not wet the sponges prior to the decontamination!

Wait you say! This might very well happen if specific instructions were not given. When we read the press release we see:

Bitton said the UF researchers soaked sponges and scrubbing pads in raw wastewater containing a witch?s brew of fecal bacteria, viruses, protozoan parasites and bacterial spores, including Bacillus cereus spores.


The researchers used an off-the-shelf microwave oven to zap the sponges and scrub pads for varying lengths of time, wringing them out and determining the microbial load of the water for each test.

and lastly:

Bitton said the heat, rather than the microwave radiation, likely is what proves fatal to the pathogens. Because the microwave works by exciting water molecules, it is better to microwave wet rather than dry sponges or scrub pads, he said.

Of course now UF has added a note of caution to the press release (McDonald's coffee anyone?):

PLEASE NOTE: To guard against the risk of fire, people who wish to sterilize their sponges at home must ensure the sponge is completely wet. Two minutes of microwaving is sufficient for most sterilization. Sponges should also have no metallic content. Last, people should be careful when removing the sponge from the microwave as it will be hot.

No shit!


Joe Meert

UK asks Public to help define science

I just read this news report from the bbc. An organization called "ScienceHorizons" is asking the public to get involved in shaping the world of science in the UK for the next few years. According to the article:

Sciencehorizons, a government funded programme, aims to get people discussing their hopes and fears for future technologies.

Their views will then be fed back to the government and could help shape future science policy.

The scheme was launched on Thursday. A series of nationwide events will run over the next six months.

Science and Innovation Minister Malcolm Wicks said: "What's important about Sciencehorizons is that we're inviting anyone and everyone to get involved in the discussions, not only the scientists.

"Over the coming decades, we're going to have some huge ethical debates about science as new discoveries are made and new technologies emerge."

"We will all need to be part of making informed decisions about how we develop and use scientific and technological advances," he said.

I think this idea has some potential. First, I think that anything that gets the general public involved in thinking about science is a good thing. Organizations such as Cafe Scientifique are very effective in getting lay people and scientists together. I also think that something along these lines might work in the US as well. People are always complaining about how their tax dollars are spent on what they consider 'silly research'. If done correctly, an organization like ScienceHorizons would allow people to understand the relevance of research projects with funny sounding names! Of course, there will be some quacks hollering for investment in scientific-sounding ideas like intelligent design or young earth creationism, but even letting those people vent their silliness in a public forum would be educational.
THe one drawback I see to this approach is the comic-book look to the site. For gosh sakes, if the discussion is about cutting-edge science and technology, shouldn't the site look a little more scientific!


Joe Meert

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Are Students Getting Worse??

I hate to sound like an old fuddy-duddy on this topic, but I got something via e-mail yesterday that seemed to offer concrete evidence that, at least in calculus, today's students are worse than their counterparts 17 years ago. Professor Stephen Wilson of Johns Hopkins University gave his 1989 calculus test to his 2006 students. The full report can be found by following this link, but I'll try to give the 'highlights' here.
The course was Calculus 1 and the student population in 1989 was much the same as 2006. Professor Wilson notes the following similarities:

(1) SAT math scores : 662.6 in 1989 and 664.9 in 2006
(2) Class Size: 147 1989; 180 2006 both representing about 23% of the freshman class.
(3) Both classes took the same 77 point final exam

Here is a comparison of the raw scores on the exam:

Raw Scores (Yellow 1989-Red 2006)

A grade comparison is given below

Wilson goes on to give possible explanations for the discrepancy in grades:

It must be confronted that the 2006 students did not do as well as the
1989 students, no matter how one tries to explain it. An easy
explanation is to assume that this is the result of a slowly
degenerating mathematics professor. I am not inclined to look
favorably upon that explanation. Aside from my belief that I
get better at teaching every successive year, I received a
teaching award, The Johns Hopkins University Homewood
Student Council Award for Excellence in Teaching, in 2000-
closer to 2006 than 1989. My student course evaluations have
remained consistently high (although the results for this class
will not be available for months).
If the percentage of Arts and Sciences freshmen taking
Calculus had increased, then we might be encountering weaker
students who, in 1989, would not have taken Calculus at all.
Since the percentage in Calculus I is the same, this explanation
would require an increased percentage of freshmen taking
Calculus II. However, the corresponding fall semester
percentages for Calculus II are 11.1% for 1989 and 11.4%
for 2006.
I think it is unlikely that the phenomenon we are seeing is a result of
something happening at JHU once students arrive. I am inclined to
conclude that these 2006 students are not as well prepared as the
corresponding group was in 1989, despite there being many more
American high school graduates now and significantly more
competition to get into JHU today than ever before.

In the end, Wilson blames the decrease on the use of calculators for the SAT and also on an overall decline in math education in the US. Clearly this is but one study, but it's an interesting one and it would be nice to see this repeated across campuses. In my opinion, I am not so sure that students are less well educated now than in 1989 or 1979, but they do enter college with a different set of skills and expectations.


Joe Meert

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

First Doushantuo, now Changzhougou

Grypania Spiralis

One of the most interesting aspects of evolutionary biology is the origin of eukaryotic organisms. The oldest bonafide eukaryotic fossil was discovered in the Negaunee iron formation (Michigan, 1875 million years old). The body fossil is named Grypania spiralis. Eukaryotic fossils have a rich record in the Neoproterozoic (1000-542 million years ago), a sparser record in Mesoproterozoic rocks (1600-1000 million years ago) and vert few bonafide Paleoproterozoic body fossils (2500-1600 million years ago. In 2000 Zhu and colleagues from Tianjin Institute described some of the largest 'eukaryotic' impressions that were touted as one of the richest finds in the Paleoproterozoic. The analysis by Zhu and colleagues relied heavily on gross structural and morphological comparisons to known (younger eukaryotic organisms such as Tawuia and Chuaria

Chuaria Circularis
Compression structures (Lamb et al, 2007). Copyright Elsevier Publications.

A week or so ago, much was made of the 'embryo' fossils from the 580 million year old Doushantuo Formation in China. While not specifically dismissing all the fossil finds from Doushantuo, the fossilization of embryos was found to be contentious. In a forthcoming paper in Precambrian Research, Lamb et al. take on the supposed eukaryotic fossils from the Paleoproterozoic aged Changzhougou Formation (1800 million years old) in North China.
Lamb and colleagues conducted a number of detailed tests on these compression like structures to determine if they were biogenic. The compressions lack a distinctive morphology, no distinguishing 'marker' features such as walls or ornamentation, they lack an internal structure, contain no evidence of tissue or cells, they show little evidence for carbon and have shapes and features consistent with clay-rich clasts. Rather than a collection of the oldest and largest eukaryotes, these impressions are non-biogenic sedimentary structures. The search for the oldest and largest eukaryotic fossils continues.

In other news, a new study from the University of Florida shows how rare earth elements can be used to trace the movement of birds into North America....

GAINESVILLE, Fla.: A University of Florida-led study has determined that Titanis walleri, a prehistoric 7-foot-tall flightless "terror bird," arrived in North America from South America long before a land bridge connected the two continents.

UF paleontologist Bruce MacFadden said his team used an established geochemical technique that analyzes rare earth elements in a new application to revise the ages of terror bird fossils in Texas and Florida, the only places in North America where the species has been found. Rare earth elements are a group of naturally occurring metallic elements that share similar chemical and physical properties.....continue


Joe Meert

Monday, January 22, 2007

Out of Africa

There is an interesting paper that will soon be published in the journal Paleo^3 (Palaeogeography, palaeoclimatology and palaeoclimatology) regarding the exodus of hominins from Africa. In the paper, "Using Pliocene palaeoclimatic data to postulate dispersal pathways of early hominins" (doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2006.11.012 K. Holmes), the argument is made that, from a paleoclimatic perspective, the exodus out of Africa would have been most favorable 1.8 million years ago (Pliocene-Pleistocene boundary). The analysis was made using a GIS (Geographic Information System) model coupled with climatic information from climate models for that interval of time.
There is considerable debate in the paleoanthropology community regarding the timing of the exodus from Africa. Some groups favor an early exit from Africa based on poorly dated finds of fossils from places like Atapuerca (Spain). The Atapuerca find for example, contains hominid bones thought to date to about 800,000 years. In Java (Indonesia) there is controversial evidence for hominins outside Africa by 1 million years ago. Older estimates for fossils dating the exodus back to ~ 2 million years are also controversial. What is clear is that ancestors to homo sapiens left Africa sometime post 2 million years ago.
This paper approaches the problem from a paleoclimatic standpoint. The argument is that the exodus was driven by environmental issues and, more specifically, climatic issues. The paper looks at potential pathways for the exodus using a combination of GIS and paleoclimatic models. Holmes looks at the pathways of animals that also dispersed from Africa at about the same time and argues that physical barriers for the exodus were not an important consideration (i.e. it was easy to leave Africa). Her model considered the following pieces of information most critical for the analysis:

1. Pliocene topography

2. Pliocene vegetation

3. Distribution of carnivore faunal remains

4. Distribution of carnivore/scavenger faunal remains

5. Distribution of herbivore faunal remains

6. Distribution of herbivore/root/omnivore faunal remains.

The model predicts a number of favored pathways out of Africa. Some are confirmed by fossil finds while a few known hominid finds confound the predictions of the model. What is most interesting is that the model predicts several potential locations for future discoveries. Holmes predicts, for example:

The results suggest that a pathway through the more northerly countries of central Asia, following the Asian grasslands into southern China, has the highest probability of having been used for hominin dispersal in the Plio/Pleistocene; thus archaeological/palaeontological work in this area would provide a critical test of the results of this model.

Image Copyright Elsevier Science 2007

This is a useful illustration of how scientific predictions are made using independent methods. The model reported in this paper suggests potential new sites for hominid discoveries and also highlights preferred paths for the exodus based on physical and environmental barriers.


Joe Meert

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Why do you hate Kent Hovind?

I promise this will be my last post on this topic for at least 8.5 years. People have been asking me "Why do you hate Kent Hovind so much?" The assertion that I 'hate' Hovind is based on creationist logic. In fact, what I support is the proper punishment of criminals. I do believe the mantra "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time". Too often criminals get suspended sentences, ridiculously short sentences or parole. These criminals then turn around and repeat the crime.
I don't much care for taxes, but the law states that I must pay taxes so I do. I am fighting to change the tax laws, legally. I write my congressman, I support fair tax legislation and I push for change via legal methods. Hovind could have done the same. Instead he flaunted the laws and taunted the IRS. Hovind spits in the face of the very freedoms that allow him to peddle his nonsense across the country and make a buck doing it. Hovind did the crime, now he must face the time.
I won't deny that getting Hovind off the street is good for education in America. Every lecture that he gives and every child who is forced to sit and listen to his creationist claptrap left his seminars that much dumber. Getting Hovind off the street is also good for Christianity. If Christianity is to survive as a religion then it needs salespeople other than Kent Hovind. Augustine of Hippo was correct when he noted:

"For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation"

Hovind was a master of making up science as he went along. Hovind believes that anything is fair game as long as it leads others in the direction of his line of thinking. Sadly, it seems that a lot of people are still buying into his litany of lies. Don't believe me? Follow this link to video proof!

Augustine also said "Hate the sin, love the sinner". Regardless of its religious origins, this statement is also humanistic in its approach. So, I don't hate Kent Hovind, but I dislike what he stands for (peddling religion as science and science as religion). We should also not forget why he is in prison. He is in prison not because of his daffy religious beliefs. He is not imprisoned because he thinks the Flinstones is accurate history. He is not imprisoned because of his failure to understand basic physics, chemistry, biology, geology or theology. He is not imprisoned for selling fantasy videos and pamphlets. He is in prison because he broke the law. Yes, Virginia, it really is that simple.

Listen to this tape of Hovind (he's a criminal)


Joe Meert

Friday, January 19, 2007

Hovind gets 10 years

Photo courtesy 'Missus Gumby'--2007

By now most people who have followed the Hovind court case realize he got 10 years in prison and some hefty fines. Hovind probably did not do himself any favors when he said (tearfully):

"If it's just money the IRS wants, there are thousands of people out there who will help pay the money they want so I can go back out there and preach," Hovind said.

What balls! Why doesn't Hovind come up with the money? What happened to all that money? Can anyone imagine a bank robber telling the judge, "Hey if it's just about the money, I'll go pass a plate and pay it all back"? Hovind didn't get it when he was convicted and apparently he did not get it today. Maybe, hopefully, he'll get it in the next 10 years.

Bottom line: The creation 'science' evangelism was a good scam and if Hovind had simply paid his taxes, he would still be living the good life. Travelling and selling his nonsensical books and tapes to an audience he knew really wanted to believe in his message. What's really disturbing is that his audience, in true Jim Jones fashion, still follows him as if he were a god.


Joe Meert

Creation 'evangelist' Kent Hovind sentenced!

Young earth creation 'evangelist' Kent Hovind and his wife Jo will be sentenced for their tax crimes this morning in Pensacola. Michael Stewart of the Pensacola nespaper writes:

A Pensacola evangelist who argued he owed no taxes because everything he owns belongs to God will be sentenced in federal court today on a tax fraud conviction.

In November, a jury found Creation Science Evangelism founder Kent Hovind guilty on 58 federal counts, including failing to pay $485,000 in employee-related taxes.

Hovind's wife, Jo Hovind, also was convicted in 44 of the counts involving bank-reporting requirements.

A federal clerk said Thursday U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers will sentence the Hovinds at 9 a.m. today.

Kent Hovind, who has remained in custody at an undisclosed location since his conviction, faces a maximum of 288 years in prison. Jo Hovind could be sentenced to up to 225 years in prison. She has remained free pending sentencing.

Hovind has hardly been in an undisclosed location. He has been blogging from Pod 3 bunk 20 of the Escambia county jail. What's interesting about Hovind's blog is that he has no remorse for his crime. Furthermore, he writes as if he were blameless in the mess he has created. He pretends to care for the men in his pod, but then criticizes them and compares himself to a missionary. He wrote:

Sometimes, I feel like a missionary in a jungle tribe

Please Kent, get real. You are a convicted tax fraud and until/unless the case is overturned, you remain a convicted tax fraud. Stay tuned for a report on the sentence.....

Hovind and his wife Jo received a sentence of......well darn it all no news yet.


Joe Meert

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Science and Religion can work together

The Orlando Sentinel and several other newspapers are touting an alliance between science and religion to save the planet Earth from environmental and climatic catastrophe.

WASHINGTON - Unlikely allies - scientists and evangelicals - joined Wednesday to warn against the dangers of ignoring environmental problems, including global warming and species extinction.

Although short on specific solutions, the new coalition said it would press lawmakers and average Americans to change their attitudes toward environmental protection.

Instead of focusing on their differences over evolution, coalition members said, they will concentrate on issues such as conservation.

"God is putting together groups of people with a common cause who may have been adversarial at times in the past," said the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Fla. "Protecting the environment is also a way for preserving life."

Hunter recently was slated to head the Christian Coalition of America. But he reneged on the leadership post in November after disagreeing on priorities for the group.

Among the issues Hunter wanted to address was environmentalism, or "Creation protection," as some religious leaders called it. At the conference, Hunter repeated his call for religious leaders to "cultivate and protect."

It was a common theme Wednesday, as Harvard scientists and evangelical leaders advocated a broad agenda of reducing air pollutants, cleaning up waterways and simply turning off the lights.

"Science and religion are the two most powerful forces in the world today," said biologist E. O. Wilson.

Protecting the environment "has to have a religious intensity," he said.

Environmentalists are lobbying Democratic leaders in the new Congress on a range of issues, such as renewable sources of power.

President Bush also is expected to address global climate change in his upcoming State of the Union speech.

We'll have to see how well this works. I'm a little concerned that they are 'short on specifics'. It's the specifics that matter. Many evangelicals preach that global warming is just another in a long line of scientific lies and have been generally reluctant to embrace environmental reform. Primary dissenters are young earth creationists. For those who don't want to read the entire Answers in Genesis link, here is a paragraph that sums up the views of some evangelicals:

Christians especially need to be cautious when it comes to the issue of global warming and other environmental issues. One of the reasons is that these issues have been hijacked by individuals who desire to change our way of life, and in particular, the Christian worldview that has guided the Western Hemisphere. Veith concluded: "A big part of the problem is that the current environmental movement has been hijacked by the far left." There are also pantheists involved. These groups have agendas for social engineering. Second, some environmentalists are promulgating misinformation, as will be documented below. It is important that we examine what is known for sure before we speculate on future climate scenarios. Third, those who believe we must act now dominate public discussion and are served by a biased media. Fourth, computer simulations of climate are not always accurate predictors of the future and, with a doubling of carbon dioxide, exaggerate the amount of global warming. But too many people take these simulations as authoritative. Fifth, doomsayers use ad hominem arguments against those who disagree with them?a sign of a weak case and a refusal to enter into reasonable dialog.

Note the derogatory use of 'far-left' and 'pantheists' followed by telling us to watch out for ad-hominem arguments. Sheesh!


Joe Meert

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Capricious Earth & Grand Canyon Update

A number of young earth creationists make the assertion that geology may be lost in a failed paradigm (old earth, plate tectonics) and has simply not yet realized that fact. They claim that plate tectonics has built up a number of unsolved anomalies that collectively doom the theory. Furthermore, the claim is made that perhaps better explanations for the geologic record should be based on earth expansion on a 6000-10000 year time scale or 'catastrophic plate tectonics' advocated by John Baumgardner. Both of these 'alternatives' are an attempt to harmonize the geologic record with the bible. Let me begin with some philosophical points:

(1) Assertion: Geologists operate blindly inside the prevailing old earth plate tectonic paradigm: The short answer is no (see point #2 below), but the longer answer must include an admission of guilty as charged. Let me try to explain the guilty as charged rationale. At the very heart of all scientific discourse is the need to approach a better truth. Of course, we'll never get there because all science is flawed. In earth science, we develop an iterative model of the earth. We never truthfully describe the real planet, but the planet is always available for observation. The Earth is not capricious although it may sometimes be difficult to fully understand. Scientists, on the other hand, can be capricious, bias and highly prejudiced regarding their own conclusions. The question is whether or not the human condition leads to a false view of the earth. I would like to ask the question as to whether or not modern science (I'm talking really of the last 200 or so years) has led us forward, backward or merely left us treading water in discovering how the earth works? I am going to argue, of course, that the progress of understanding the real earth through the successive approximation of geologic thought has led us (haltingly) toward a much better understanding of the planet. I argue that we abandonded young earth global flood catastrophism not due to any religious bias, but rather because it failed in providing a strong explanatory framework for understanding the earth. Thus, plate tectonics, if ultimately doomed as an explanation, will not likely be replaced by a framework that had less explanatory power.

(2) The 'no answer' to point #1 can be justified as follows. I argue that while individual scientists may cling longingly to their explanations, the scientific community pushes past these biases and moves forward. Scientists (at least the ones I know) operate with the idea that paradigms are meant to be broken, that a good explanation can be made better and ultimately their egos force them to challenge the status quo at every opportunity. Thus, within the failings of the human condition, there is also a built-in success mechanism that guarantees that the best explanation (while still not perfect) will ultimately prevail over the poorer explanation. In my opinion, the failure of young earth global flood creationism was due to the fact that it could not explain in the simplest terms, how the earth worked.

(3) The Capricious Earth: Both the expanding earth idea---especially one that posits 40% volumetric growth in a very short time (years to hundreds of years) and the catastrophic plate tectonic hypothesis contain a fatal flaw. The major flaw is not with the explanation (although I think there are plenty of flaws in the explanation), but rather in what these hypotheses say about the earth and science in particular. Both argue that the Earth is capricious. If that is true, then can we really derive a useful explanation for the science of geology? If the entire explanation posits a series of one time events to explain the geologic record, then does it not also follow that we can invent any series of unique events to arrive at the same endpoint? For example, what is fundamentally wrong about arguing that the earth expands AND contracts at some random cycle? Supercontinents form during contraction and break apart during expansion? Mountains result from contraction and oceans from expansion. If the mantle can behave as it did during the Baumgardner scenario, then how can we be sure that it will not happen again or did not happen prior to the period of time posited by Baumgardner et al? If decay can speed up capriciously, then could it not also slow down capriciously? If so, how do we know whether we are looking at an extremely young earth or an earth much older than we think it is? I argue that there is no explanatory power in describing the earth in these terms because the arguments really assume that we can know nothing about how the earth really works because on a capricious planet all possibilities must be equally sound.

(4) The only solution out of the conundrum in point 3 is to make a further assumption that the capriciousness exhibited by the earth is due to divine intervention. In fact, this is what ye-creationists must argue. They must further conclude that their science is not truly science, but merely an attempt to explain the bible in the language of science. They must also (if they are honest) conclude that the bible is pretty silent on exactly how those earth changes happened other than the fact that it describes a global flood. Their explanations of how these earth changes occurred are nothing more than an attempt to interpret a bible that is mostly silent on earth history. In fact, the same frailty that we can ascribe to scientists interpreting the evidence can be equally applied to those interpreting the bible. There are biases, capriciousness and egos involved in exegetical studies as well. Whereas the evidence in science suggest that these frailties ultimately lead to a better understanding of the earth, the same frailties applied to young earth creationists view of the bible lead to an entrenchment in dogmatism. If you carefully scan the creationist arguments they can be summed up as "The bible says it, I interpret it this way, and that settles it". However, that leads to an equally capricious interpretation of the bible.

Side note: Skeptic Magazine had an article on the PEER press release regarding censorship of Park Rangers in the Grand Canyon. They have now offered an apology for buying into the hype.


Joe Meert

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Chris Buttars is not a quitter, ya gotta give him that! From the daily herald:

Not a prayer

Sen. D. Chris Buttars somehow cannot resist sponsoring message bills that waste everyone's time.

The West Jordan Republican, having not learned his lesson with the defeat of his creationism bill in the 2006 session, Buttars is back again with another legislative solution desperately seeking a problem. He wants a state law to stipulate that individual expressions of religious faith are protected on public property.

Like last year's creationism bill, Senate Bill 111 was created with no intelligent design. It was inspired by an aggrieved constituent who claimed his child was barred from wearing a T-shirt displaying the acronym "CTR" in school. (Mormons, of course, recognize this as "Choose The Right," a slogan used in the LDS Church's Primary program.) The bill, Buttars explains on the Senate blog, would allow the government to ban religious expression only to further a compelling government interest and then only in the least restrictive way possible.

Forget about dogs that won't hunt. This is a bird that won't fly. It has wings of concrete, an easy mark for any lawyer -- which Buttars isn't. The First Amendment already protects an individual's right to wear a shirt with a religious message, to read a book about religion or to quietly pray in a public place. Buttars might have responded to his constituent that the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that students can express themselves as long as they don't disrupt school. But that would have taken away his opportunity for religious posturing.

Buttars shouldn't worry about schools becoming devoid of religious expression. As long as pop quizzes and football games exist, so will prayer.

In other news, a christian website finds the following:

ChristiaNet.com (http://www.christianet.com), the world's largest Christian portal with twelve million monthly pages loads recently conducted a poll asking participants to decide whether Creationism or Evolution should be taught to children in the classroom. Participants could also cast a vote in favor of both being taught or for neither choice. Voters were given the opportunity to comment about their selection. Because ChristiaNet's Internet community consists largely of people who claim to follow the Christian faith, the results of the poll were surprising.

Out of 527 participants, 269 believed that Creationism should be taught in the classroom. This figure represents just more than half of those taking the poll. Only 14 voted for an Evolution-only approach to teaching children about the beginnings and development of mankind. Thirty-four said the topic should not be discussed in school and avoided all together. The most surprising number, however, was the 210 participants who believed children should learn both theories. This number may represent an indecisiveness about Creationism among those who claim to be Christians.

Color me shocked on both these articles!


Joe Meert

Deeper roots for the primates.

Colleagues at the Florida museum of Natural History propose deeper roots to primate origins based on a study of a complete fossil in Wyoming. The news story begins:

GAINESVILLE, Fla.: A new study led by a University of Florida paleontologist reconstructs the base of our family tree and extends its roots 10 million years, a finding that sheds new light on the origin and earliest stages of primate evolution.

Published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and featured on the cover of its Jan. 23 print edition, the study offers compelling evidence that a group of archaic mammals called plesiadapiforms (please-ee-ah-dape-i-forms) are more closely related to modern primates than to flying lemurs, which previously had been proposed.

The two-part study examined specimens representing more than 85 modern and extinct species and provides evidence that plesiadapiforms are the most primitive primates. The team also discovered two 56-million-year-old fossils, the most primitive primate skeletons ever described.

"These fossil finds from Wyoming show that our earliest primate ancestors were the size of a mouse, ate fruit and lived in the trees," said study leader Jonathan Bloch, a vertebrate paleontology curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "It is remarkable to think we are still discovering new fossil species in an area studied by paleontologists for over 100 years."

to read the full release click here.

Joe Meert

Monday, January 15, 2007

Wild, Wacky World of Answers in Genesis

Every once in a while, I'll head over to Answers in Genesis to see what propaganda they are peddling. Today, I was not disappointed. In their desire to 'prove' that they have properly interpreted the bible, the folks at AIG have abandonded reason and criticism and adopted a stance of 'accept anything if it fits our preconceptions'. In todays feature, we are treated to evidence that man and dinosaur (Specifically stegosaurus) lived together as recently as 800 years ago (from the ruins at Angkor, Cambodia). The article describes to us the following:

"What one sees are roundels depicting various common animals?pigs, monkeys, water buffaloes, roosters, snakes?and what appears to be a dinosaur! There are no mythological figures among the roundels, so one can reasonably conclude that these figures depict the animals that were commonly seen by the ancient Khmer people in the twelfth century."

Might we also reasonably conclude that the animal pictured in the roundel is not a dinosaur? Nope, we must take the author at his word. Earlier in the article we see the following description:

Most of the great Angkor ruins have vast displays of bas-relief depicting the various gods, goddesses, and other-worldly beings from the mythological stories and epic poems of ancient Hinduism (modified by centuries of Buddhism)

Should we also reasonably conclude that the Cambodian people co-existed with these gods 800 years ago? After all, they carved those into a place of prominence as well? Still, let's take a closer look at the carvings. Here is the original photo:

Here's a much clearer figure (you can go to the website linked below and look at the figure): Check out the bottom figure (ever read "where the wild things are"?)

and one more close up with scale!

Here's a rendition of stegosaurus

See how many differences you can spot (begin with the head). This is another case of people seeing something that they want to see and ignoring the rest. But of course, AIG is not the first to posit this and at least one creationist has already 'critiqued' the alleged problems of scale by noting:

One is tempted to respond to these claims by pointing out that our modern restorations involve some guess work, that Stegosaurs may have exhibited a significant amount of anatomical variety (like dogs), that a view of tail spikes may well be blocked by the surrounding stone circle, etc., etc. However, this line of reasoning focuses the discussion on the wrong issue. The relevant question is not, Can you find anatomical differences with today's popular restorations? Rather, the real question is, What kind of sculpture would be produced by an artist who remembered seeing a Stegosaurus?

Indeed, something a lot better than what is depicted here

What's even more interesting is that the second (better photo) of the 'stegosaurus' at the Cambodian ruins is headlined "This I found astonoshing....". read the rest of the quote. It makes me wonder if tour guides are embellishing this just a bit. In fact, at least two of the books on the ruins also makes mention of this 'dinosaur':

The large, beautiful 320 page book, Angkor, Cities And Temples, by the same author and photographer, includes a half page picture of the stegosaur sculpture. On page 213 the author describes it as "an animal which bears a striking resemblance to a stegosaurus".


Along the vertical strip of roundels in the angle between the south wall of the porch and the east wall of the main body of the gopura there is even a very convincing representation of a stegosaur."

I'll let the reader decide how good a representation of steggy. The other roundels are fairly clear with regard to scale:

I also wonder what creature is portrayed at the bottom of the column. AIG must know what that one is! It might just be the chupacabra


Joe Meert

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Intelligent Design: The New Polytheism

So I have been reading Dawkins book "The God Delusion" and despite all the reaction I've read on various discussion boards etc, I actually am enjoying his viewpoint. Admittedly, I've a long way to go before finishing, but I have not seen anything in it that is offensive. He certainly challenges the theological viewpoints on nature and Dawkins takes religion to task, but since when is strong criticism of any idea a bad thing? Anyway, I was reading the bit on polytheism and monotheism which somehow led me to thinking about the Intelligent Design (ID) movement.

ID has been called 'creationism lite' because of its religious underpinnings. ID'ers of course claim there is no need to bring religion into ID while at the same time suggesting that supernatural explanations should be allowed in science. Michael Behe refers to this as "d
esign beyond the laws of nature". Well, if the design is beyond the laws of nature, then one might begin to imagine that supernatural explanations are also valid. All one needs to do is find an irreducibly complex system (biological or otherwise) and assign credit for this system to a supernatural intelligence. Since the intelligent design movement is publicly cautious about identifying this 'supernatural designer' and acknowledge that there may be more than one designer, I thought this might be the religion for me!

There are systems in nature that appear irreducibly complex. According to Behe, an irreducibly complex system is:

a single system which is composed of several well-matched interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning

Behe applies this definition to several biological functions (the bacterial flagellum) which has been discussed ad-nauseum on the web. The intelligent designer was very busy supernaturally creating this flagellum for bacteria and other organisms while allowing humans to evolve naturally from an ape-like ancestor. Presumably, the supernatural being responsible for the flagellum is (were they able to) worshipped by bacteria. Since bacteria lack the cognitive ability to create a god, we shall call the god of bacteria "KHYT" (the Russian translation for flagellum). The God KHYT is responsible for designing all irreducibly complex structures found in small organisms.
ID is usually applied to biological systems, but there is no a-priori reason for limiting ID to biology. One might apply irreducible complexity to lightning. Lightning is a natural system and although we know much about how lightning happens, the system itself is irreducibly complex and not fully understood. You can read about the various theories of lightning formation here. Here is a description of the physical process involved in 'negative lightning':

An initial bipolar discharge, or path of ionized air, starts from a negatively charged region in the thundercloud. The discharge ionized channels are called leaders. The negative charged leaders, called a "stepped leader", proceed generally downward in a large number of quick jumps, each up to 50 metres long. Along the way, the stepped leader may branch into a number of paths as it continues to descend. The progression of stepped leaders takes a comparatively long time (hundreds of milliseconds) to approach the ground. This initial phase involves a relatively small electric current (tens or hundreds of amperes), and the leader is almost invisible compared to the subsequent lightning channel. When the downward leader is quite close to the ground, one or more smaller discharges (called positive streamers) arise from nearby, usually tall, grounded objects due to the intense electric field created by the approaching leaders.

As one of the rising streamers meets a stepped leader, the circuit is closed, and the main lightning stroke (often referred to as the return stroke) follows with much higher current. The main stroke travels at about 0.1 c (30 million meters/second or 100 million feet/second) and the peak current lasts for tens of microseconds or so. After the peak, the current typically decays over tens or hundreds of microseconds.

In order for a bolt of lightning to occur, the following must be present in the system:

(1) an initial bi-polar discharge must be present in the system (thunderclouds)
(2) negative leaders must form.
(3) the leaders must survive long enough to reach the ground
(4) positive streamers must arise from the ground in the region of the negative leaders.
(5) the circuit must close

If we remove any one of these elements, lightning cannot occur. Note too that the formation of the 'initial bi-polar' discharge is unknown. There are many speculations about how such a bi-polar discharge might arise, but no unified theory of this initial phase is known. Even if the bi-polar discharge occurs, without leaders no lightining will occur. If leaders are present, but bifurcate such that they never approach the ground surface, lightning will not form. Positive streamers must be present and must reach the negative leaders for the circuit to close. Without positive streamers, the circuit cannot close and lightning will not form. In short, if you remove any of the above steps, so-called 'negative lightning' will not occur. The system is irreducibly complex. While some might protest, 'but we observe lightning happening in nature, therefore it does not require intelligent intervention'. However, since science has no consistent explanation for how the initial charges form or why they form, it is equally valid to assume they require intelligent design.

I will call this intelligent designer "Thor" and add "Thor" to our KHYT. One can imagine doing this for any irreducibly complex system. That means that our supernatural designers form a body of 'Gods' each responsible for that particular system. Indeed, such polytheism seems a valid explanation for the intelligent designers and should be promoted as a new religion. While this removes some of the importance from the Flying Spaghetti Monster, he can remain one of many Gods responsible for irreducibly complex systems.


Joe Meert

Friday, January 12, 2007

Coast to Coast AM

One of my favorite late night pastimes is working on scientific papers well into the evening. There's nothing like the cool 'winter' Florida breezes blowing through the window, an idea, a beer and some wacky late night radio. I've become somewhat of a fan of the show "Coast to Coast" with George Norry (successor to the brilliant Art Bell). The show features the most pseudoscience and fantasy you can pack into 4 hours. What amazes me most (and never tires me) is how many people have become convinced of their own hallucinations and imaginations. Be it the chupacabra, ghosts, demons, alien bases on the moon, the Loch Ness Monster or crop circles, you'll find the opportunity to discuss these in-depth with a seemingly endless parade of quacks or self-proclaimed geniuses.
In addition to the quacks, Norry and Bell also host discussions of real science so the program can be entertaining from that standpoint as well. The show is also useful as a teaching tool. Once in a while I will ask my class to listen to the show and discuss how science is intermingled with pseudoscience in an attempt to legitimize a pseudoscientific claim. Other times, the show is just good for a laugh.
I encourage anyone interested in the weird wacky world on the fringes of science to give the show a listen.

By the way, see if you can get a glimpse of Comet McNaught in the dusk or dawn hours. If you can't see it with the naked eye then try the SOHO observatory online and live.

Lastly, the wild and wacky never cease to inspire others. Here's an article about a guy in England who was inspired by creationist Kent Hovind to author a book on pseudoscience.


Joe Meert

Thursday, January 11, 2007

News from Nature & More

Another article has been published relating to some of the predictions made in my New Year's prediction list (although to be fair, this paper was pre-published online in December), Nature (today's edition-subscription required) has a discussion on the fossils found in the Doushantuo fossil beds (China). The original findings indicated that the fossils included embryonic forms of metazoans. What the study indicated was that, at 599 million years old, these fossils were some of the oldest evidence of complex life. What's more, these fossils preceded the so-called "Cambrian Explosion" (~523 million years ago) by nearly 80 million years. These findings would suggest that the Cambrian 'explosion' was something more like a slow burn. So that's where the science stood until today.
Authors Bailey et al. argue that many of the putative 'eggs' and 'embryos' are in fact sulphur-reducing bacteria and thus far simpler forms that metazoan life. The study was based on structural and size similarities to modern-day sulphur-reducing bacteria. Thus, according to these findings, the metazoan origin of some of the fossils at Doushantuo should be questioned. In fact, one of the original problems with these finds is how exactly eggs and embryos were preserved, but not the metazoans that produced them.
A word of warning. The 'hype' on this find is sure to focus on the fact that some of the 'eggs' and 'embryos' have been misindentified and that the deeper origins of the Cambrian explosion should be dropped. However, the authors make no such assertion. In fact, in their concluding statement they make it very clear that this is not their argument:

We do not suggest that the Doushantuo microbiota is composed entirely of sulphur bacterial remains, because there are many structures in the Doushantuo that clearly do not resemble sulphur bacteria.

As usual, science examines every find with a careful and critical eye. This study will no doubt cause the original investigators (along with others) to re-evaluate the fossil finds at Doushantuo.

On another note, a very interesting article is to appear in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters that is sure to create a few fireworks. Ophiolites are rocks that are thought to represent ancient seafloor that is obducted (thrust onto) continental crust during the process of collision. This process is relatively common in modern-style plate tectonic regimes. There is some debate about whether or not modern-style plate tectonics existed in the Archean (pre 2500 million years ago). The earth was hotter then and presumably oceanic crust was able to remain afloat and not sink as it does today when it ages. Thus, one of the major debates in Earth science is when modern style tectonics started.
In 2004, Tim Kusky and co-authors published an article in Science on the 'world's oldest ophiolite' from China. The rocks nearby the ophiolite (but not the actual ophiolite itself) dated to 2,500 million years old and Kusky and co-authors argued that modern style plate tectonics occurred by the end of the Archean. The previous record for oldest ophiolite was about 500 million years younger than this. The paper caused a stir, but subsequent papers questioned the interpretation of the rocks offered by Kusky along with the age. The paper in EPSL again mentions possible problems with the study and reports a new age on the 'ophiolitic rocks' of only 297 million years! These sorts of controversies usually result in some fireworks amongst the competing scientists!


Joe Meert

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Fan Mail

Every once in a while I'll get an e-mail or a letter from some young earth creationist who will tell me about going to hell. Some will tell me to go to hell and others have gone so far as to try and cause trouble at my work place. Here's an e-mail I received from one 'B. Deas'---at least that's the identity in the e-mail address:

Please refrain from babbling at the table. We do not want to hear your evilutionist (me: don't you just love that term!) fairytales or your mindless jabs at an honest, courageous, just, trustworthy man of God. You are a blind man feeling an elephants leg and calling it a tree. Either shut up and listen, or go back to the kids table!

No doubt this comes from a fan of one Dr. Kent Hovind, a young earth creation evangelist who was recently convicted on 58 counts of tax fraud. In addition to his tax fraud conviction, "Dr." Hovind obtained his Ph.D. from a degree mill called Patriot University. Hovind makes some very outrageous claims about science and the bible that are criticized by other young earth creationist groups. All of this may seem like a simple ad-hominem attack on Kent Hovind. I would argue that these document poor scholarship and a reasonable distrust of Hovind's motives. Thus, I give this information and let the reader decide whether or not his message is worth following.

The writer might also be a follower of creationist Walt Brown. I have been in a dispute with Brown for some time now regarding a debate challenge. Walt also has some very active devotees. One went so far as to write a letter to the chairman of the department where I work (and I believe cc'ed to the Dean of my college). The letter was lengthy, but the import was clear enough. He was trying to cause me some trouble as an untenured professor. Here's the part of the letter, from one Bill Wells that was most striking:

"As time goes by more people will learn of these widespread distortions that I am certain do not reflect favorably on his academic integrity, on the University of Florida, or on the Department of Geological Sciences. While there are people of integrity on both sides of this issue, Professor Joe Meert poorly represents honest evolutionists (me: I thought all evolutionists were liars??) and the University of Florida"

Wells was complaining about my website discussing Walt's challenge to evolution. I e-mailed Walt Brown asking if this is the sort of action he condones of his followers, but he never replied. These are typical letters I receive as I continue the battle for solid science education in the US.

I have come to expect such things, but I am very curious about one aspect of the hate mail. According to the document that these people follow, they are called to "love your enemy". It's clear that a pro-science stance that calls young earth creationism what it is, is an enemy to their world view. That's too bad because there is so much beauty and fun in science that is missed by trying to force fit the science into a narrowly conceived biblical framework.

On a separate note, the New York Times had an article on 'future plate tectonics' (see my blog of Jan 7, 2007 on supercontinents).


Joe Meert

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A very, very Simple blog

Go Gators. National Champions in Basketball and Football.
Oh and we're not too shabby on the academic side either!

from the Columbus Dispatch

It appeared the Buckeyes were playing football while the Gators played laser tag.


You were ridiculed from coast to coast. And now, sitting in your Idaho home on Lake Coeur d'Alene, you've been vindicated. And so have the Gators, who left teeth marks on an Ohio State team that played as if its cleats were tied together.


Joe Meert

Monday, January 08, 2007

Grand Canyon Redux

An alert reader informed me that the Grand Canyon Association (the not for profit seller of materials) is selling "Grand Canyon: A different view" under the heading of Natural History. That changes my position on this issue. I have sent the following letter to the Grand Canyon Association and encourage others to follow suit:

Dear GCA,

I'm writing this note to encourage you to take some action regarding the sale of Vail's book 'Grand Canyon: A Different View". Unlike most, I don't object to the sale of the book per se, but rather your listing of the book under the heading of 'Natural History'. The book attributes the formation of the Canyon to a supernatural event (God's cursed flood) and therefore it is not 'Natural'. Furthermore, the study of geology demonstrated over 150 years ago that the sedimentary record (including that found in the Grand Canyon) is not compatible with a global flood. Hence, the geology shows us that the view espoused by these authors is not 'history' either. I am encouraging my colleagues to write to you to have this book reclassified under 'Inspiration' or 'Spirituality' because that is more in line with the message of the book.

their e-mail address is: gcassociation@grandcanyon.org

and hopefully this problem is now settled. I received the following response:

Professor Meert,

I completely agree. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. This title was approved as an inspirational title and should not ever be listed in the science or Natural History sections whether online or within our outlets. I was completely unaware of this error and will assure you that it will be corrected immediately.

Looking through the site, the book is no longer listed under Natural History selections.


Joe Meert

Sunday, January 07, 2007

It's indoctrination time!!!

Today classes start at UF (Go Gators!) and I am teaching "Historical Geology" which is the second course in the Geology major. In the intro course we mention evolution, but this course is the one where we slowly and subliminally get them to reject God and accept Darwin. It's tough to do because these kids are smart and do a lot of thinking. Over the years, the psychology people have developed methods of brain washing that even the best students would never catch onto. Anyway, we manage to convince them of Darwinism and many will have posters of Charles on their walls by midsemester. Yes, I love this time of year. Spring is for indoctrination.
Hopefully you've read this far in order to understand that I am being facetious. Nevertheless, this is how many young earth creationists think education works. They view education as another part of the atheist conspiracy meant to rid the world of faith and belief in God.
In truth, teaching a course like this is challenging. Students at UF are sharp and they want to learn and they want to use that education to make their own mark. Rather than blindly following the lecture, the course will challenge them at fundamental levels to think like a scientist. More importantly, teaching this course challenges me to teach the history of life and geology on earth to students who will challenge what I say. Rather than being indoctrination time, it's really a time where students start applying what they are learning in geology in practical and theoretical ways. As always, it's sure to be a fun semester.


Joe Meert

A brief history of supercontinents

Nearly everyone who has taken an introductory geology course has heard of the 'supercontinent' of Pangea (meaning 'all lands). The supercontinent was composed of two parts, Laurasia (North America and Eurasia) and Gondwana (the southern continents). This supercontinent was fairly short-lived, but gave geologists a glimpse into the past and future of continental motion.
Gondwana can rightly be considered a supercontinent of its own. The continent was composed of Africa, Australia, Antartica, India, Madagascar, South America, Sri Lanka and had numerous smaller blocks around its periphery. The formation of Gondwana took place at about the same time as the Cambrian explosion of life and the shallow equatorial seas along some of the margins served as a warm, nutrient-rich ecosystem.
The configurations of continents before Pangea becomes more difficult. We must rely on paleomagnetism (fossil magnetism in rocks that tells us 'where' the rocks formed), geochronology (radioactive decay tells us when the rock formed), geology (some features may 'line up' when continents are placed together and any other information we can use. For example, in Pangea, the Appalachian mountains line up nicely with the Caledonian mountains in Europe when the Atlantic is closed.
The existence of supercontinents besides Pangea and Gondwana has been a difficult chase, but it now appears that at least one, and perhaps more, supercontinents existed prior to Pangea and Gondwana. The first of these has been nicknamed Rodinia (from the Russian prefix 'rodit' meaning mother). Rodinia was so named because it was thought to be both the mother of all supercontinents and also because the margins along which the continent disaggregated became the birthplace of modern life.
Did Rodinia exist? It sure appears that there was a large supercontinent near the end of the Precambrian (~1100 million years ago until ~750 million years ago). The evidence comes from paleomagnetism, geochronology and geology. The problem is trying to decide what pieces belong where! Perhaps the most compelling evidence for this supercontinent comes from a study of the sedimentary history of the margins of North America. It seems that no matter where we look along the margins we see evidence of rifting (or breakup). Since breakup requires at least two pieces, these rifted margins along North America suggest that a number of other pieces resided as neighbors to North America. There is still great debate as to what belongs where, but very few doubt the existence of a Precambrian supercontinent.
What about before Rodinia? Evidence has been interpreted to support an earlier supercontinent known as Columbia or Nuna. Evidence supporting the existence of this supercontinent is derived primarily from the study of paleomagnetism and geochronology of collisional belts (where the continents smashed into each other). Since these mountains have long since been eroded, we are looking at the cores of the belts and trying to figure out what the supercontinent may have looked like. This supercontinent is thought to have formed about 2100-1800 million years ago and broken up at around 1500 million years ago.
Supercontinents prior to Columbia are even harder to discover. In part this is because the rock record becomes increasingly rare the further back in time we go.
What about the future? If supercontinents do form, breakup and form again, then what does the future hold? One could argue that Africa+Eurasia constitutes a supercontinent today. We do know that continents continue to move and as long as there is heat within the earth to drive this motion, other supercontinents may form. Two such 'future' supercontinents have been proposed. The first "Pangea Ultima" considers what would happen if the Atlantic ocean closed. The second "Amasia" offers a glimpse of the world without a Pacific Ocean.


Joe Meert

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