Monthly Archives: December 2006

“A Hawk with Hopes of a Fresh Squirrel Lunch”

Neither more nor less: A Hawk with Hopes of a Fresh Squirrel Lunch

The linked blog post has some photos of a red-tailed hawk trying to catch squirrels in an urban park. Bob Arihoob notes that two hours of effort didn’t get the RTH anything.

There’s two comments to go with that. First, a lot of juvenile RTHs (as the barred tail on the one in the photos leads me to believe this one is) die in their first winter. If I recall correctly, the figure generally bandied about is about 70% mortality. An inept juvenile may be entertaining, but I can assure you that the issue is deadly serious for the bird. Squirrels are tough prey, fast, thick-skinned, and fully capable of biting off an RTH toe if the bird bungles the grab. Rusty, our 15-year-old very well-experienced Harris’s hawk will only bind to a squirrel if she is sure that she can get the squirrel’s head under control.

Second, the general poor ratio on prey capture attempts and successful catches for raptors like RTHs is what makes falconry possible. As one falconer put it, an RTH makes 20 attempts and catches once, where an osprey makes 20 attempts and fails to catch once. It is easy for a falconer to improve an RTH’s food acquisition ratio and convince it that hanging around the falconer is a good thing. It is generally considered very difficult to impossible for a falconer to successfully train and fly an osprey (harking back to the unregulated days pre-1918 when such could be considered); an osprey doesn’t need the falconer for anything.

Unaffiliated Attorney Regrets End of Lawsuit

Attorney Regrets Georgia School Boards Decision to Settle With Darwinists

Ah, the newsoids…

Recently the Cobb County School Board settled the lawsuit and agreed not to edit materials on evolution in school textbooks. But Brian Fahling, senior litigation counsel at the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy (AFA Law Center), says he wishes the board had chosen to stay the course and fight to keep the stickers.

Because Selman v. Cobb County was settled on Dec. 19th, one now sees various groups taking the moment to do a little profile-raising, though they had nothing to do with the case, and, as in the linked newsoid, are simply making a lot of noise without understanding what the state of things was. Here we have one Brian Fahling of the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy saying that he “regrets” the Cobb County School Board’s decision to settle the case. The further text indicates all the usual culture-war stances.

So, what does Fahling show no interest in addressing? Plenty.

The original trial did not have testimony from expert witnesses. Ken Miller testified as a fact witness, as he was an author of the textbook to which the stickers were being applied. This time around, there was a change in plaintiffs’s legal team, with some of the veterans of the Kitzmiller case being on the team (Eric Rothschild of Pepper Hamilton and Richard Katskee of Americans United being prominent in that group). What they argued for, and got, was the opportunity to re-open discovery and use expert witnesses in what would be, essentially, doing the whole trial over. The experts for the plaintiffs this time around would be Ken Miller, Eugenie Scott of NCSE, and Brian Alters. [Links added to expert reports online.] That’s two of the Kitzmiller expert witnesses plus Scott. The experts prepared and presented their expert witness reports. It was in the knowledge of those expert reports and the altered legal landscape following Kitzmiller that the defense made its decision to settle.

Fahling had this to say about the school board:

Fahling acknowledges that a number of factors can influence a school district’s decision to cave in to pro-Darwinist pressure in a situation like this, including fiscal considerations and even “just a weariness that sets in,” along with concerns over the fact that taxpayer dollars are having to be spent to defend the district’s position.

Many times, he contends, school officials begin to ask themselves why they don’t “just fold up the tent and go home,” and that, unfortunately, is what happened in the case of the Cobb County School Board’s decision to settle.

Well, one good reason to “fold up the tent and go home” not considered by Fahling would be the realization that they were going to lose any further litigation. But not looking at the expert reports or examining the briefs from the case makes it simple to say that the Cobb County School Board simply showed a lack of will.

Why would Fahling say such a thing? We know that in the case of the Thomas More Law Center, that group spent several years propositioning school boards around the country to adopt the “intelligent design” supplemental textbook, Of Pandas and People, whereupon TMLC would defend them in the following inevitable lawsuit. TMLC was looking for an opportunity to raise their profile, and finally got it in late 2004 in the form of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. The religious right legal advocacy field is getting crowded, and it looks like these groups have to keep letting the base know that they are the one true group defending the usual social religious conservative concerns, antievolution among them.

From there, things go way downhill.

“Of course, I think that it’s a disservice to the community overall,” the AFA Law Center spokesman observes. “Evolution stands out alone as the only area of science that is absolutely cordoned off from any criticism,” he says; “there is a great wall around it and they simply do not admit any dissenting voices.”

Hello? Earth to Fahling… sure, there is criticism. On the one hand, there is the informed criticism that occurs within the scientific community and via the scientific method. Evolutionary science is an active and changing field of study, not a static set of concepts from long ago. Within the past fifty years, one has seen various different views on the process of evolutionary change being proposed and tested: transposons, endosymbiosis, punctuated equilibria, kin selection, evo-devo, and more. Some of these have withstood testing and criticism and have taken a place in the textbooks for high school biology. Others are still being argued, still working toward convincing the scientific community that they represent a real advance in our understanding. On the other hand, though, there is the uninformed criticism of evolution denial, the same old bogus antievolution arguments that go back decades or centuries. The only reason that these long-rebutted arguments get mentioned is because of the socio-political movement that continues to push these falsehoods. The only reason these folks mention “criticism of evolution” is to attempt to insert the bogus uninformed criticism that can only mislead students rather than the actual informed criticism representing state-of-the-art evolutionary science.

However, Fahling points out, “that [wall] is beginning to crumble a little bit, because inside the camp of Darwin, there is tremendous dissent.” So, even though he feels the Cobb County case is further evidence of the “oppressive” attitude the academic community has toward opponents of Darwinian evolution, the pro-family attorney says evolutionary theory is “in tatters” right now.

TMLC certainly believed exactly that sort of thing, and gave it their best shot in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, naming the leading “intelligent design” creationism advocates as their experts, and doing their best over 40 days of trial to make that case. They lost. Have things gotten better for uninformed criticism over the past year, such that Fahling could have some rational basis for his claims? I haven’t seen it.

And that is one reason why Fahling feels the Cobb County School Board’s settlement is by no means a death knell for intelligent design theory in schools. Nor should the Georgia district’s decision discourage others, he insists, from standing up for the idea that evolution ought to be subjected to critical examination in the classroom.

When “critical examination” is simply socio-political code for “let’s see how many of the old-time religious evolution denial arguments we can manage to squeeze into the science curriculum”, folks end up telling the country that they are standing up for telling kids known falsehoods.

Hat tip to Glenn Branch.

Falconry Hits the Funny Pages

OK, Gary Larson’s “Trouble Brewing” panel did it a long time ago, but today’s Pearls Before Swine takes up falconry as its topic.

It’s a bit out of whack… Six years? Six weeks, maybe, or six months for a long time period, but years is out of place. Still, the essential thing about falconry that the strip does get right is that the point is having the birds fly free, and that at any such time the bird can choose to terminate her association with the falconer. (Most often her, as the females tend to be larger in those species with size sexual dimorphism.)

Back To Academia

Barring some difficulty with grant administration, I’ll be taking a leave of absence from the National Center for Science Education in January and taking up a university research position on a one-year grant. As Glenn Branch noted to me, I’ll be giving up professional status in the evolution/creation socio-political controversy to become yet another academic amateur so far as science education advocacy is concerned.

Once the soft money firms up sufficiently, I’ll give further details on where I’m headed, who I’ll be working with, and what we’ll be working on. Otherwise, this will all be a big, “Never mind” moment. This work will be taking advantage of my interdisciplinary background in biology and computer science, which is a cool thing.

There are other issues, of course. I’ll defer discussions of things like doing things past the traditional age, the logistics of having two academically oriented people in a marriage, and economics.

As a practical matter, I may be posting even less often from now until sometime late in January, when we should be in our new location. Packing and especially downsizing our stuff will be taking priority.

The Intelligent Design Awards(TM)

DMPC Announces the 2006 Winners of the Disease Management Intelligent Design Awards(TM)

Hat tip to Glenn Branch on this. Here is an organization that knows how to best put the shoddy reputation of the term “intelligent design” to good use:

The Disease Management Purchasing Consortium (DMPC), the most comprehensive source of information about the disease management industry, announced today the winners of the “2006 Disease Management (DM) Intelligent Design Awards,” given annually to those contributions which most set back the evolution of the disease management and wellness fields. Just as engineers say that more is learned from a single bridge which collapses than from 100 which stay up, there are serious lessons to be learned from these often-humorous failures.

Intelligent Design(TM) as a phrase synonymous with failure… seems apt to me.

Can I Get a Piece of That?

Casey Luskin is getting beaten like a drum over his failed attempts to argue that Judge Jones did something “disapproved” of by higher courts.

Looking over Luskin’s latest offering reveals this:

And keep in mind that the Third Circuit interpreted a Supreme Court ruling as directly “holding,” in part, that judicial copying is “highly disapproved of”:

We are bound by the Supreme Court’s decision in Anderson v. Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 572, 105 S.Ct. 1504, 84 L.Ed.2d 518 (1985), holding that a district court’s verbatim adoption of a party’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, although highly disapproved of, is not per se grounds for reversal. (emphasis added)

If the question is “do courts generally disapprove of judicial copying” the answer is clearly “yes.” That’s all I’m saying here.

While Phillip Johnson said something once long ago about how lawyers are trained in the logical analysis of arguments, it appears that some of them either skipped that class or are using that knowledge to construct attractive but fallacious versions of arguments. Certainly what is quoted from Casey has the form of an argument, but something is seriously wrong with it. What we have here is a clear case of equivocation on Luskin’s part. The term being used in two ways is “judicial copying”. Even the citation given by Luskin shows that the Third Circuit thinks of “judicial copying” as something different than what Luskin then offers.

Third Circuit version of “judicial copying”:

verbatim adoption of a party’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law

Luskin’s version of “judicial copying”, though, is broad enough to cover the current point of discussion, Judge Jones’s decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. That means that Luskin is talking about a situation where the judge’s decision had about 38% of its text taken from proposed findings of fact.

These are clearly two very different uses of “judicial copying”.

Nor is it the case that one can argue that because the Third Circuit said that complete verbatim adoption of one party’s findings of fact AND conclusions of law was “highly disapproved of” that utilizing any part of a party’s proposed findings of fact is “disapproved of” or even “somewhat disapproved of”. That is a non sequitur.

PT Changes

About four hours ago, I changed over the Panda’s Thumb server to a new, faster internet connection. There’s one DNS entry that I don’t have edit access for that needs to be changed to get scripts going again. I’ve put in the request and hopefully that will follow shortly.

A Bad Week for Antievolution

In the last week or so, antievolution forces have made a number of high-profile missteps and have settled a prominent court case.

– The Discovery Institute tried to accuse Judge John E. Jones III of some sort of impropriety in using the plaintiffs’s proposed finding of facts in his decision in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. Mainstream media notice was pretty much negative, especially from outlets in Pennsylvania. The blogosphere is having a field day with this issue, too, with the various misunderstandings of the DI lovingly dissected. Rather than accept their just rhetorical thrashings, you have the spectacle of Casey Luskin attempting to argue, but failing to support, that the DI was right anyway despite all the criticism.

– William A. Dembski and his wife conceived of a Flash animation to poke fun at Judge Jones. It appeared at the Overwhelming Evidence site, and featured a pitch-shifted version of Dembski’s voiceover speaking parts of the KvD decision while various ID creationism critics pull a string. It also originally featured rather a lot of farting noises. As even some of Dembski’s hand-selected sycophants on the Uncommon Descent site criticized this, the fart noises got removed later. Nonetheless, Dembski continued to play up the animation, saying that it was an “instrument of grace”. That led me to refer to him as “William A. ‘Divine Wind’ Dembski”.

– Staff of US Rep. Mark Souder released a vitriolic “report” about alleged discrimination against researcher Richard von Sternberg at the Smithsonian Institution in the wake of Sternberg’s now-repudiated acceptance of a review paper advocating “intelligent design” in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. They made the strategic error of also releasing as an appendix the letters and emails that were supposed to substantiate their claims; it turned out that the emails tell an entirely different tale.

– The Selman v. Cobb County case is over, the parties having reached a settlement. The school district agreed not to place stickers of the sort at issue into textbooks in the future. The settlement comes one day before the one year anniversary of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision, making this an eminently appropriate Kitzmas Eve present.

I may come back and add some links later.

Diabetes breakthrough

Diabetes breakthrough

If this news report and the research behind it are accurate, this is a huge story. A tip of the hat to Steve Story, who dropped this link to me in email. I’d say it is comparable to to discovery that most stomach ulcers are due to bacterial infection and not simply stress, except in the other direction. The disease being researched was diabetes, the subject species was mice, and the result was that turning off pancreatic sensory nerves reversed Type I diabetes in mice.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The implication is that Type I diabetes could primarily be caused by a problem in neurology, not simply an auto-immune problem as has been assumed by most physicians. It also opens up possibilities for treatment that go way beyond the current standard of care, insulin replacement therapy.

Of course, there are a lot of steps to be taken, like doing the tests on humans and working up clinical trials for treatments. Even if the research holds up to scrutiny, it will take years before a treatment based upon this new information could become available.

It will not be a surprise, though, if the research does not pan out. In science, there are far more ideas that don’t work than ideas that do. While the process of discovering error is nowhere near foolproof in science, it nonetheless does so reliably enough to cause a strong majority of the population to trust scientists and the work they do highly.

Kenya wildlife rangers kill poacher during shootout in national park – Africa & Middle East – International Herald Tribune

Kenya wildlife rangers kill poacher during shootout in national park – Africa & Middle East – International Herald Tribune

A 60-year-old poacher who has been pursued by authorities for over 20 years finally ran out of luck. He was killed in a shootout with rangers in Kenya.

The poaching of elephants and rhinos has made hash of conservation plans for these species. Stopping poachers, as demonstrated by the long career of the deceased, is hard work.

Myself, I think we should be promoting our own meme: It isn’t some animal byproduct that offers all the erotic and health benefits you are thinking about; no, what you want is poacher liver. An amusing variant would be “poacher testicles”.

A Great Riposte

Over on the “After the Bar Closes” forum, a fellow with the unlikely handle of “Occam’s Toothbrush” had a particularly good rejoinder to a bizarre claim from one of the “Uncommon Descent” sycophants.

The bizarre claim?

I have every reason to suspect that the Judge took a payoff from the ACLU.

And the response:

Of course. No honest, competent or sane judge would have ruled Dover like the lying, plagiarizing, activist, wacky Judge Jones. The UD pundits convince us beyond a doubt that the opinion was just bad, corrupt, awful law.

So, uh, how come none of these same people are arguing that the Dover policies should be enacted elsewhere, to bring about a similar lawsuit in a jurisdiction not presided over by such a leftist loony like Jones–the only judge in the world who would have ruled against it?

Because they know they’d lose anywhere. Easier to just play the martyr over Dover than actually do anything, since everything they try to do just turns to shit.

White river dolphin declared extinct

Be: White river dolphin declared extinct

This news article tells us something that marine mammalogists have been expecting for a while: it sure looks like the baiji, or Yangtze river dolphin, is now extinct.

This is pretty much a straightforward tale of habitat loss, as human uses of the Yangtze River in China — and human pollution — reduced viable habitat for the baiji. Habitat loss is, of course, one of the most common modern reasons why species now become threatened, endangered, or extinct. Habitat loss is also the one thing that humans cannot somehow cast as a positive thing on the ledger if they reverse it: reverting habitat does not have a primary, direct economic benefit for the humans who do it. There are a number of indirect benefits that may accrue from preserving species diversity by preventing habitat loss, but somebody in the short-term here-and-now beloved of stockholders has to say, “We won’t develop this land that we own because conservation is important.” It is not an easy sell.

The Chinese marine biologist mentioned in the linked article, Wang Ding, was another student trained by my advisor, William E. Evans. He has spent the last several years working on conservation of the baiji. I hope that the survey turns out to be wrong, much like the early 1900s report of only eight Northern Elephant Seals remaining alive. The Northern Elephant Seals have made a comeback, despite an East Coast museum sending out a crack team of collectors to get those final eight seals before some other museum did. The seals, though, were simply overhunted, and obviously there were some refugia where a remnant population was able to begin the recovery. Habitat loss is a different situation, and it is harder to see how the baiji could fail to turn up in the present survey, but reappear later.

Celebrity dolphin ‘may have been chopped up’

Celebrity dolphin ‘may have been chopped up’

Over in the United Kingdom, bodies are turning up everywhere. There is a sicko who is going after the Ipswich prostitute population. And now somebody chopped up a bottlenose dolphin and left the remains for others to find.

Folks are concerned that the dolphin may have been one that was habituated to humans, known to the residents in the area as Marra. That would make sense, as a dolphin-chopper has a better opportunity of getting in close to a dolphin who thinks that humans are friendly than one that has no particular trust in humans.

The news report is pretty sad in its indictment of people in general, and not just the dolphin chopper in particular. Recent sightings of Marra said that there was bruising and injury, perhaps from the people that would drive their boats directly at the dolphin.

Update: The pathologists say that it is likely that the dead, cut-up dolphin was the local celebrity dolphin, Marra.

Hawks, Dogs, and People

There’s a news story about a boy who fought off a red-tailed hawk that was trying to drag off the boy’s dachshund puppy.

I can understand a certain feistiness in protecting a pet. I expect that I would give no quarter in protecting either of our dogs. I certainly wouldn’t ease up in protection of our birds, either. But the reported story stops short of giving us the complete picture.

It’s getting into winter-time, folks. Raptors die in winter in significant numbers. The young birds haven’t got it all figured out yet, and older birds may succumb to injury or simple age. That means that you will occasionally get desperate raptors whose hunger overcomes their timidity of humans. If they are unable to obtain their usual prey items, side orders in the form of pampered pups and cute kittens in areas that encroach on hawk territory may be altogether too tempting.

The bird that was treated as the villain of the news piece linked above was, in all likelihood, just about starved to death. The strength of the bird may not have been due to hale health, but rather to that last desperate fight against the final enemy and its will to live, maybe another day or week. The encounter with the boy is likely to have left the red-tailed hawk with a broken wing and possibly a concussion, given that the boy is reported to have stepped on its wing and kicked its head. A red-tailed hawk is perhaps two and a half pounds of bird; it has hollow bones that are strong enough for day-to-day use, but certainly are not proof against being trod upon by kids. Especially, perhaps, the corn-fed kids of our current culture.

So, where is the report on attempts to lend a hand to the bird? Something to assess the hawk’s condition (poor, I’m guessing) and try to do something about it? That seems to have been overlooked.

York Dispatch and the DI

Yesterday, the Discovery Institute distributed a press release about how Judge Jones used rather a lot of the plaintiffs’s proposed findings of facts in his decision in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. Any number of respondents have pointed out that judges do use proposed findings of fact in decisions, sometimes quite extensively.

The York Dispatch, one of the two regional papers covering the Dover, PA area, has an opinion piece about the DI’s press release.

Note to Seattle: That’s not how it works, folks. At least not in the last 200 years of American jurisprudence. Judge Jones’ credibility remains intact, Discovery Institute’s claims flop.

As ACLU attorney Witold Walczak points out, it’s standard procedure for jurists to cite, in their rulings findings of facts from attorneys involved in cases they are deciding.

P.S. to Seattle. The intelligent design argument lost big time in the Dover Area School District case. Pick your fight somewhere else.

“Intelligent design” is a populist socio-political movement that many communities have found doesn’t suit the populace, once they learn that the DI’s brand of “intelligent design” is actually a narrow religious viewpoint, and not the high-minded connotation most people assign to the phrase “intelligent design” in their ignorance of the actual content the antievolutionists give it.

No Kill Now!

Having been introduced to the bizarre mind-warp that is “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” back in 1985 and 1986 when they used every dirty political trick to have my boss then, Richard H. Lambertsen, denied tenure, I’m not surprised a bit as revelations of their program come to light. PETA’s not-so-public goal is to end all “abuse” of animals by humans, which translated into plain English means that they aren’t likely to be satisfied until every last domesticated species goes extinct. Once you’ve got that basic orientation in mind, every otherwise odd fact about the behavior of PETA organizers and shelters becomes explicable. Any step toward there being fewer dogs and cats around advances PETA’s apparent goal of extinction, therefore the absolutely atrocious record that various PETA-run animal shelters have in placing animals in adoptive homes suddenly makes perfect sense.

For more information on the disjunct between PETA’s carefully crafted PR and the rather grimmer reality behind their actions, see the No Kill Now! web site and their article on PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk.