Monthly Archives: June 2006

Internet Access as a Hospital Service?

Back when I was in the hospital in 2004, one thing that helped my state of mind was getting online via dial-up to the Internet. I could do email, surf the web, do instant messaging, and generally keep in touch with reality outside the hospital room. Late in my first stay, an administrative type came by and had a cow over the fact that I had a laptop computer plugged into a power outlet, and also that I had hooked up to the phone line. Neither was allowed, she said.

Let me tell you that the time I spent in the hospital when I couldn’t use my laptop, not for Internet acces, not for DVD-playing, not for any personal data project, was pretty depressing.

Now, some of that could just be me. I haven’t heard of anyone else offhand who set up their weblog in recovery within a couple of days of major surgery. But I’m thinking that perhaps there might be some value to making Internet access available to patients stuck in hospital. There could even be some intra-hospital application, as if there were an instant-messaging-like interface to the nurses’ station, I could have simply typed in what sort of thing was up. Messages to the patient could remind them to get up and walk at intervals.

But I think that investigating the value of providing computer access, and especially Internet access, to hospital patients should be pursued. So, if anybody out there is an M.D. or hospital adminstrator who sees some possibilities there, I would be happy to help in discussing the topic and perhaps collaborating on it.

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A Salvo from Crux

Remember Crux Magazine? Where the same fuddy-duddies who have been pushing 200+ year-old antievolution arguments tried to bill themselves as hip, cool antiestablishment commentators? Remember the “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS” article they promoted? Well, now they’re back. This time, though, they aren’t releasing their content online where just anybody can grab it and comment on it. In fact, they’ve done up their new site, Salvo Magazine, in MacroMedia Flash, so one can’t even grab the text that easily. That’s OK, because they really don’t have much in the way of content. The front-page background graphic is an overlay of about three pages of scribbled math-like notation, tinted in blue tones. I’m not sure what target audience gets turned on by restaurant-napkin math, but Salvo Magazine is looking to corner it.

Then there is the mission statement. Remember, I can’t just cut-and-paste the text, so here is the graphical version:

Well, so far as I can see the stances taken by the Cruxies have thus far really promoted death in the real world, since that has been the upshot of the promotion of the “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS” advocacy campaign. Some African states have latched onto that message as a justification for not spending resources on the expensive medications that are aimed at controlling HIV titer levels in patients, with the predictable outcome that people are dying faster there due to inadequate treatment for their condition.

As for “questioning the sanity of our consumerist lifestyle”, that would properly describe those who insist that we need to take action on human contributions to global climate change. But treating climate change as anything other than liberal myth-making is beyond the social conservative stance one finds in the Cruxies. The apparent attitude is that we may as well use it up now; Armaggedon will arrive soon and obviate any long-term programs to conserve resources or protect the environment. It seems to me that if you do believe Christian scripture, then you are still bound to act as a steward for creation, despite any hunches you might have concerning the fulfillment of end-time prophecies.

The whole thing smells strongly of the “cultural renewal” component of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. The one consistent thing about teleological notions invoked for explaining parts of evolutionary biology is that they have all failed. They don’t work. In fact, the teleology embraced by the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China as a substitute for western evolutionary biology helped to kill tens of million of people via famine. I suppose that “Celebrating over 200 years of failure!” wasn’t considered to be the sort of marketing copy they wanted, even though it would have come much closer to truth in advertising for this foray into uninformed commentary. Speaking of which, be sure to check out the “Intro” letter from the editor, wherein Bobby Maddex bemoans the situation that while journalists comment on everything else around without worrying about their lack of credentials in those topics, that they tend to defer to scientists on scientific topics. Maddex attributes problems in science to diminished oversight by journalists, citing the recent case of Hwang Woo-Suk. This, of course, is balderdash. Journalists and their supposed lax scrutiny in reporting of research didn’t have anything to do with Hwang’s behavior; the controlling influence in cases like this comes from the level of scrutiny applied to examining methods and results that is undertaken within the scientific community. But if one wishes to justify a magazine that appears poised to deliver lots of uninformed commentary each month, I guess such marginal justifications need to be vigorously pursued.

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NCSE Podcasts

The National Center for Science Education is producing podcasts of its email news update. Mostly these are produced weekly, with occasional special news items being sent out as news breaks. Carrie Sager delivers these news summaries that are written by NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch. Want to keep up with developments in evolution education using your MP3 player? Check out the NCSE podcasts.

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Michigan Fight Resumes

Fight over teaching scientific theories likely to continue

In Michigan, a “critical analysis” style bill that mentioned evolution and climate change specifically was altered to make it generic, then it was passed out of committee. Changes on the floor could restore the language removed in committee.

It really doesn’t matter what people call the failed and bogus collection of “arguments against evolution”; peddling the same old stuff as creation science under a different name hasn’t fooled a court yet.

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Another Trial, Everyone?

It looks like the case of six private school students against the University of California system will go forward to trial, as reported by Sean Nealon. The UC system sets course standards for admission, and has not approved certain courses, including biology, offered at the Christian private schools that the students attend. The students claim a violation of free speech and religious rights.

There are parallels, I think, between this case and cases that have come before where groups make a claim on public resources and are rebuffed because of their own unequal access policies. That would be a point toward UC prevailing in this case.

However, the new report includes this line, “Three classes in question — two literature courses and an English course — cover the needed material but add a Biblical view, an attorney for the school said.” This particular argument may well have been what led the judge to his statement that he was leaning toward sending this case to trial. It certainly looks like that puts an arguable point into play: should a course that presents all the material and then some that manages to get a course at another school certified be ruled inadequate by the UC system in making their admission policy? If the courses in question really do meet that criterion, then I see trouble for UC’s course evaluation system.

Of course, that isn’t the case for the biology courses, which are based on curriculum materials from publishers like A Beka and Bob Jones University, which have substituted codswallop where evolutionary biology should be. The problem is, though, will a jurist be able to clearly write an opinion that might correct a wrong (if there is one concerning the literature and English courses), while letting stand a correct evaluation by the UC system on the biology courses? That seems to be a big question mark.

Update: In looking at the complaint, there is this about the biology courses:

A. In Science
31. Defendants have a policy, stated in the “standard language” of a form letter,
of rejecting Christian school courses that use either of the two leading high school
science textbooks that contain a Christian viewpoint, because of the Christian viewpoint
to standard subject matter presentation in those texts and courses:

Subject: Language re Christian biology texts
. . . .
Below is the standard language that we give to schools who submit
biology/science course descriptions that include either the Bob Jones University
Press or A Beka Books texts:
“In establishing and implementing the “a-g” subject area requirements, UC
faculty’s main interest is that students entering the University are well prepared to
be successful at UC. The content of the course outlines submitted for approval is
not consistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the
cientific community. As such, students who take these courses may not be well
ss if/when they enter science courses/programs at UC.”

The PDF of the complaint is weird in some way. One can’t select a block of text and copy it cleanly. I’ve tried to make the above as accurate as I can.

Wendell Bird is arguing that the same situation that he claims applies to the lit curricula also applies to the biology curricula, that the courses offer all the material that is seen in other accepted courses, but then adds a particular viewpoint. Do the Bob Jones and A Beka books give appropriate time to evolutionary biology and make the students aware of the evidence behind evolutionary biology? I don’t think so. The argument might work in the lit instances, but then again, if the complaint is as off-base there as it is concerning biology, I don’t think that UC should be worried.

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My Hat’s off to You, Mrs. New

The New York Times reports on a dedicated science teacher in Georgia who quietly insisted on teaching biology with evolution as its central unifying concept. According to the article, Mrs. New was proselytized by her principal, was bushwhacked by the principal and superintendent who sicced two antievolution zealot parents on her and offered no support while those folks “badgered, got loud and sarcastic”, and that what eventually relieved the situation was getting the administration to recognize that the state science standards included her curriculum.

It’s a great article. Go have a read.

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Everything You Know About Genesis is Wrong

Over on Best Syndication, there is an article by Herman Cummings. For those of us in evolution/creation issues, Cummings crops up from time to time, invariably to say the following things:

- Genesis has been misinterpreted by everyone.
- Only one person has figured out what Genesis actually says, and his name is “Herman Cummings”.
- Only one person is qualified and willing to tell others the truth about Genesis, for a fee.

This formula was not even broken when Cummings wrote his amicus curiae brief for the appeals court considering the Selman v. Cobb County case. Given the opportunity to overwhelm the appeals panel with the one, true interpretation of Genesis, all Cummings could do was hint at a possibility: maybe Moses was given visions of the first day of each geological epoch.

There is a sense of a relentless mercenary spirit in these messages, a willingness to plainly tell the world that nobody else either has, or can have, a clue about the interpretation of Genesis. Which makes me wonder whether Cummings insists upon a non-disclosure agreement with everyone who does pay that modest fee for his collected wisdom on Genesis, or whether he is still looking for his first student. Surely, any radical knowledge concerning Cummings and his view of Genesis would have leaked by now, unless we are dealing with the modern equivalent of “The Royal Nonesuch” from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

And the bulleted points above really are all that the Best Syndication article boils down to, as the final two paragraphs make clear:

This article is to inform all that a class on Genesis is available to science teachers. The title of the course is “Moses & Creation: Biblical Reality”. It is a 12-hour class that tells the truth about the first three chapters of Genesis, so that the teachers won’t be speaking in ignorance about what Genesis is saying to mankind. Neither theology nor secular science are anywhere close to knowing what advanced scientific knowledge is contained in Genesis.

Therefore, any attempt to formulate any “creation” curriculum without correct technical advice from the leading expert is foolhardy, and is distribution of misinformation.

Sorry, Herman, I’m not buying.

And to some extent, it appears that Herman is not selling, at least not effectively. I see no contact information to allow an interested party to sign up for one of the mentioned seminars. Nor is it apparent that there is any way to obtain the remaining chapters of his 1992 manuscript that are not yet online and which Cummings himself referred to as an “unpublished manuscript” in his amicus curiae brief.

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Research ID Wiki Opens

Joey Campana has developed a site based on the MediaWiki software called ResearchID.org. They make a point of note that it opens today, June 22, 2006.

That’s a mere four years and one day after I announced the opening of TalkDesign.org (TD) at the end of my talk at the CSICOP Fourth World Skeptics Conference. I also pointed out on that day that “intelligent design” had failed to produce on the promised scientific basis for ID, despite the assurances of Wedge document, Rob Koons, and William Dembski that that was priority one for the ID movement.

Let’s consider some of Campana’s welcome letter:

A major priority for ResearchID.org’s administrative team is to provide a place where investigation of intelligent design can take place absent from the tumult of politics and social polemics that surround the issue of ID. A principle focus of this effort to escape the rhetoric is developing a fulcrum of discussion, so that all sides can speak the same language, instead of talking past each other as participants in debates about ID tend to do. This non-polemical environment can allow for some accumulation of some of the “critical mass” that ID theorists mention when they speak of scientific research into a new idea.

Sounds nice. What I’d like to know is where these nicely-behaving non-polemical ID “theorists” are going to come from? I can see that it will be easy to simply say that any known ID critic is off-limits on the site (forgoing any argument about individual commitment to polemics) and you would still have a lot of possible people to step in and take up a skeptical stance. But what about ID advocates? If you exclude the polemical ones, then you have pretty much eliminated the well-known names of the ID movement. Who is going to step in and provide that measured, mature, and non-rhetorical voice for ID?

Anti-ID groups are now parasitical on the claims of ID for their existence. Unwittingly, they have become pawns and foils for ID theorists and researchers. The intelligent design community is in a position where we are setting the agenda, now all we have to do is to continuing bringing more meat to the table.

I think that there is a nugget of truth here: scientists are primarily reacting to anti-science movements. I’d love to do my job well enough that I would be looking for something else to do. And I can find plenty of other stuff to write about here on my weblog. But other than the nugget of reaction rather than pro-active measures on the part of the scientific community, this bit of text from Campana is completely out in the weeds. One cannot “continue” to do what one has never done before.

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Academies of Sciences Around the World

Another BBC report, and this one is big: Academic Societies Around the World Support Teaching Evolution. 68 societies joined in putting out this statement via the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues:

IAP STATEMENT ON THE TEACHING OF EVOLUTION
We, the undersigned Academies of Sciences, have learned that in various parts of the world, within science courses taught in certain public systems of education, scientific evidence, data, and testable theories about the origins and evolution of life on Earth are being concealed, denied, or confused with theories not testable by science. We urge decision makers, teachers, and parents to educate all children about the methods and discoveries of science and to foster an understanding of the science of nature. Knowledge of the natural world in which they live empowers people to meet human needs and protect the planet.
We agree that the following evidence-based facts about the origins and evolution of the Earth and of life on this planet have been established by numerous observations and independently derived experimental results from a multitude of scientific disciplines. Even if there are still many open questions about the precise details of evolutionary change, scientific evidence has never contradicted these results:
1. In a universe that has evolved towards its present configuration for some 11 to 15 billion years, our Earth formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago.
2. Since its formation, the Earth – its geology and its environments – has changed under the effect of numerous physical and chemical forces and continues to do so.
3. Life appeared on Earth at least 2.5 billion years ago. The evolution, soon after, of photosynthetic organisms enabled, from at least 2 billion years ago, the slow transformation of the atmosphere to one containing substantial quantities of oxygen. In addition to the release of the oxygen that we breathe, the process of photosynthesis is the ultimate source of fixed energy and food upon which human life on the planet depends.
4. Since its first appearance on Earth, life has taken many forms, all of which continue to evolve, in ways which palaeontology and the modern biological and biochemical sciences are describing and independently confirming with increasing precision. Commonalities in the structure of the genetic code of all organisms living today, including humans, clearly indicate their common primordial origin.
We also subscribe to the following statement regarding the nature of science in relation to the teaching of evolution and, more generally, of any field of scientific knowledge :
Scientific knowledge derives from a mode of inquiry into the nature of the universe that has been successful and of great consequence. Science focuses on (i) observing the natural world and (ii) formulating testable and refutable hypotheses to derive deeper explanations for observable phenomena. When evidence is sufficiently compelling, scientific theories are developed that account for and explain that evidence, and predict the likely structure or process of still unobserved phenomena.
Human understanding of value and purpose are outside of natural science’s scope. However, a number of components – scientific, social, philosophical, religious, cultural and political – contribute to it. These different fields owe each other mutual consideration, while being fully aware of their own areas of action and their limitations.
While acknowledging current limitations, science is open ended, and subject to correction and expansion as new theoretical and empirical understanding emerges.

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Dr. Bill Lucas: Pwned

OK, you have to check out the account of an on-the-spot takedown of antievolutionist Bill Lucas, Ph.D., in the Q&A session following a talk. “Silkworm” reports taking Lucas to task over bad geology, false claims of peer-reviewed presentations, and false credentials.

“Silkworm” reports being scolded by an attendee, twice, for not being “nice”. Well, it is tough to be nice while still making it clear that someone is up to no good.

There is something to note about this account, though. “Silkworm” was able to make the points he did because he spent a significant amount of time in preparation. He corresponded with a AAAS conference organizer multiple times about the claim that Lucas made a peer-reviewed presentation at a AAAS conference. He checked out the credentials on a resume’ for Lucas on the Common Sense Science website to find that a claimed professorship was fictitious. Because of this, he was able to confront Lucas from the floor and challenge him forcefully on these points. When considering either making a challenge from the floor or engaging an anti-science advocate on stage, one should take “Silkworm”‘s example to heart and be prepared.

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Synchronicity

My sister, Emily Kay, is visiting on her way back to Australia. Today, we went out to lunch at Sweet Tomatoes, a soup-and-salad place in Pleasant Hill. Then we headed to the theater in Concord to see “The Da Vinci Code”.

On the way there, we were making a left-hand turn and waiting for the green light. Ahead of us was a Dodge Crossfire car, all black. I’m sometimes amused by the names that marketing comes up with, so I asked Emily, “Why would a customer want to get into a Crossfire?”

Right on cue, the flat expanse of the rear of the Crossfire broke up, as a small metal panel tilted up and out, until it formed a tiny “spoiler” on the back. I figure it was maybe 18 to 20 inches in length, and perhaps 3.5 inches wide. It was about as cheesy a piece of meaningless and irrelevant ostentation I might be able to think of for a vehicle.

Both Emily and I laughed ourselves silly over that one.

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Peoples Archive

Burt “TM” Humburg sent me a link to the Peoples Archive, a site that collects videotaped interviews with scientists, philosophers, artists, moviemakers… essentially the people who have demonstrated that they have something to say to the world that is worth listening to. These interviews are divided up into discrete short “stories”. You can use your computer to play the QuickTime clips (assuming that you have version 6 or later of QuickTime installed).

I’m listening to Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman giving a synopsis of his theory of neuronal group selection, or Neural Darwinism. For those sensitive biologists out there, the binding is {neuronal group} selection, not neuronal {group selection}. Edelman’s work is a terrific counter to antievolutionists who claim that science hasn’t done anything to try to explain consciousness and higher cognitive function. Mostly, they don’t even know who Edelman is, and they certainly don’t come into the discussion with a good basis in knowledge of Neural Darwinism.

Anyway, there’s some very good content available on this site, so check it out.

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Man must conquer other planets to survive, says Hawking | the Daily Mail

Man must conquer other planets to survive, says Hawking | the Daily Mail

Stephen Hawking is advocating human colonization of space, and the eventual colonization of other star systems. That’s not the right way to think, says P.Z. Myers on Pharyngula. Colonization doesn’t help most of the human race, who would be stuck on Earth anyway no matter what.

I’m both less and more pessimistic than Chris about the possibilities, though. I think there is a path to accomplishing expansion to other worlds, but it is indirect. The first priority is to put our own house in order: we need stable, sustainable human cultures that know how to maintain a healthy environment (if we can’t prevent ourselves from trashing a whole planet, how are we going to ever maintain a viable home in the more limited and hostile confines of a habitat elsewhere?). Given that opium dream, I could see a pattern of evolving technology and careful exploration leading to the gradual establishment of some kind of humanity elsewhere. Not as an ‘escape’, of course, but because life, like cockroaches, expands to the limit of its ability.

Then P.Z. brings up the possibility of a speciation event if colonization happens — restricted gene pools with miniscule gene exchange with the parent population provides an excellent opportunity for that.

I think the caveats on who benefits from space colonization are good to bear in mind. I think that getting humans living their lives off-planet will happen when the conditions for colonization are right. That is, when the same conditions apply to the frontier of space that have applied to the other frontiers that people have dealt with in history: there is an economic benefit to the colonial milieu. As P.Z. notes, we’re not there yet with space. What few things are possible to do in space and not on Earth are not yet full compensations for the other expenses of human life outside the protective confines of our home biosphere.

This should not mean that we neglect research into technologies that will be useful for operations in space, including those technologies that will permit the efficient collection of resources needed for making habitats either self-sustaining or close to it. Somewhere packed away I’ve got a batch of NASA-sponsored papers detailing work on “closed environmental life support systems” (CELSS). I kind of like the mention of cockroaches on Pharyngula, for one of the ideas examined in CELSS studies is the use of insects as an efficient way to convert grains into protein. I don’t recall that cockroaches were mentioned specifically, but I seem to recall crickets being mentioned with favor. Don’t expect a Tang-like spinoff technology to take off on terra firma anytime soon, but there is a point there. I recall my falconry sponsor at one of our hawking meets demonstrating how to find tasty beetle grubs under the bark of fallen trees. (That isn’t a falconry thing; he was an entomologist.)

As technology expands, there may be some benefit to constructing and operating certain facilities off of Earth. I recall a placatory article in Physics Today a few years back explaining why the various doomsday scenarios proposed as possible outcomes of experiments at Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider were unlikely to actually happen. I also recall thinking that for myself, ignorance was somewhat more blissful than thinking about voracious strangelets, lower energy states of vacuum, and incidental black hole production. Some things would still be a problem for facilities located elsewhere, but still in our universe, but at least some items would be less of a problem if they weren’t right in our backyard, as it were.

And I wonder if use of space may not continue to reap benefits for trying to maintain our terrestrial ecosphere. We don’t need humans in space to benefit from programs like LandSat and the like, but perhaps we will develop technologies that need more than a token human presence on site to operate.

One thing that I don’t recall being broached is that the entertainment industry is pretty close to having budgets that would make the use of space a possibility for them. It would be rather ironic if space as a frontier were opened up with “Disney Solar System” and an explosion of cheap knock-off entertainment facilities popping up nearby. Space might even turn out to be more hospitable to the Disney Corp bottom line than France was.

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Look, Up In the Sky, It’s a Duck, a Grebe, a Loon… It’s A Fossil!

Gansus yumenensis is the name, and dozens of well-preserved fossils of this early bird show that it had a semi-aquatic lifestyle. See the National Geographic and the UK’s Independent articles for details on the find. The thing that apparently they did not get, even with so many specimens, was the head. The articles go into commentary on possible interpretations of the find. It is probably too early for definitive statements, but I think I like the one about how this shows early diversity in bird lineages best so far. Now I just need to watch to see what holds up as more work is done.

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How to Write an Antievolution Article

Today’s lesson is about publishing. Not writing. Not scholarship. Just the act of getting words out in front of other people without any sort of tedious labor behind them. Oh, and most important, these words will have your name in the byline. The case study is Creationism – How Entropy challenges Evolution Theory by B. G. Ranganathan. It went up on the “Best Syndication” weblog yesterday. Along with the featured article, you get the opportunity to buy Ranganathan’s book offering,
Origins?, from Amazon, as it is prominently displayed in the left sidebar. (At least if you buy it here, you support this weblog.)

The first step is to pick your topic. When it comes to antievolution, there are three things going for you. First, there is a plethora of material to be recycled without risk. As antievolution advocates sometimes point out, their ideas have deep roots, tracing back at least to certain Greek philosophers. Recognizable material of somewhat more recent vintage (and thus easier to incorporate into a pseudo-essay that passes as modern) comes from authors like the Reverend William Paley. Authors such as George Macready Price and Henry M. Morris assembled many of the arguments together in various books. And, as I said, nobody cares if you steal it. In fact, others will be confused if you provide complete references and trace back claims to sources. That just isn’t done as a matter of course in this field, and, of course, it pays to pick up the social gestalt of your new career.

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Coulter on “Darwinism”

Ann Coulter’s new book excoriating liberalism, by various reports, uses about a third of its pages to rail against “Darwinism”. This is somewhat more interesting than it otherwise would be (I mean, how many irrelevant rants against “Darwinism” do you need from people who have no training or experience in the fields?) because William Dembski, the prominent “intelligent design” advocate, has stated that Coulter developed those sections with his assistance, and that he stands behind the content of those sections. So I am moderately interested, enough that I would provide some commentary here if someone dropped a copy into my lap (hint!).

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Weakened Science Education in South Carolina

South Carolina’s The State gives a question and answer article about the just-adopted state science standards and their coverage of evolution. The changed standards include language that says, “Summarize ways that scientists use data from a variety of sources to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.”

QUESTION:

South Carolina has been lauded nationally for its science standards. How will this affect the state’s rating?

ANSWER:

Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that advocates school choice and charter schools, does evaluations of teaching standards. South Carolina’s science standards earned an A from the foundation in December 2005.

In February, The State newspaper polled five scientists who reviewed those standards on the proposal to alter S.C.’s biology standard to include the “critically analyze” phrase. All five said it would weaken the state’s science education.

It is precisely the “critically analyze” language that is at issue there. Based on the response from the antievolution advocates, one might be confused as to how adding something about “critical analysis” can weaken science education. The answer is that “critical analysis” is antievolution Newspeak for putting the same old bogus arguments against evolution into school classrooms.

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