Monthly Archives: August 2007

Behe the Expert Again

“Intelligent design” creationism advocate Michael J. Behe is once again an expert witness in a court case, this time appearing on behalf of Wendell Bird’s side in ACSI v Stearns. So far, there are two documents available detailing his participation, his expert report, and his deposition by opposing counsel.

I haven’t had a look yet; I’ll try to get back to these later. In the meantime, you may want to have a look of your own.

Update: I’m looking at the deposition, so I’ll make some notes here as I go.

Behe was brought into the case by Wendell Bird. Bird was the guy who wrote a draft “balanced treatment” bill that was modified a bit by Paul Ellwanger, then became Act 590 in Arkansas in 1981, leading to the McLean v. Arkansas case. Another version of Bird’s proposed bill became law in Louisiana, eventually leading to the SCOTUS decision in Edwards v. Aguillard. Bird argued that case before the Supreme Court, IIRC.

Behe’s job assigned by Bird was to show that the textbooks on biology and physics met the educational standards of the state of California. This puts him behind the eight-ball three ways: Behe is not a biologist, is not a physicist, and is not credentialed in education. I wonder if the rest of the deposition will bring that out.

Behe notes that biochemistry students often do not have a biology background, since the biology courses are not required of chemistry students who are the typical people enrolled there.

Bird has to rescue Behe on distinguishing between the documents that cover high school criteria and those for UC admission.

Behe’s method for comparing texts and declaring them satisfactory was simply that they addressed, in some form, the majority of items in the standards. In other words, pretty much completely a subjective evaluation, only as good as Behe’s own credibility in this task.

Behe also states that he expects to offer testimony significantly beyond the content of his expert report.

Behe states that his method of comparison was not completely presented in his expert report, which says that he looked for, essentially, the mention of a concept in each textbook. Behe says that he actually did evaluate the presentation as to whether a high school biology student would understand it from its presentation in the textbook at hand.

Behe has not taught high school biology. His understanding of what high school students understand, or don’t, comes from haphazard experience in teaching college freshman.

Behe was asked about having looked at high school textbooks previously. He says he did, and that he looked at entire books, not just sections of particular interest. He also says he gave testimony before the Texas state board of education about 5 or 6 years ago, and may have said something about his opinions of them at that time. I think that deserves some digging to see if his exact testimony can be located.

Behe’s experience in learning the limits of knowledge of former high school students was limited to his “popular arguments on evolution” course and a technical writing course.

Moth study backs classic ‘test case’ for Darwin’s theory

Moth study backs classic ‘test case’ for Darwin’s theory – Independent Online Edition > Sci_Tech

The news article reports that Michael Majerus is now presenting data from his own seven-year study of peppered moths. His study site: his backyard in Cambridge, UK. His methodology: fix all the issues that have been raised about Kettlewell’s research back in the 1950s, including those raised by the professionally ignorant crowd of evolution deniers and crypto-creationists. The results: birds are the major selective pressure on color morphs of the peppered moth, Biston betularia.

Peppered moths come in two color morphs, the “peppered” variety that is a variegated gray brown with black speckles, and a dark form, or “carbonaria” morph, that is a solid dark gray to black color. Before the Industrial Revolution in England, the carbonaria forms were known, but were very rare. During the Industrial Revolution, so much soot was released from the burning of coal and wood for fuel for steam engines that there was widespread pollution of exposed surfaces. This included the trees in which peppered moths spend time. As this progressed, people noticed that the black or “carbonaria” form of the peppered moth was no longer rare; it was, in fact, the most common color morph around. When the pollution from industrial sources abated and trees returned to being tree-colored, there was once again a shift in color morph frequency, and the “peppered” form once again became the predominant one seen. Or, I should say, generally unseen, for the primary issue here is crypsis, the ability of an organism to go about its business unobserved and therefore not pounced upon by hungry predators. The peppered color morph does a good job of blending in with a background of unpolluted bark. The carbonaria or dark color morph does a good job of blending in with a background of soot on bark (or, likely, any soot-covered surface). But each color morph is stunningly un-cryptic when on the opposite background: the carbonaria form sticks out when on unpolluted bark, and the peppered form is far lighter in color than the bark of a soot-covered tree.

Bernard Kettlewell did research on peppered moths in the 1950s, testing the difference in survival of these color morphs in polluted and unpolluted forests. He used a release and recapture method to test differential predation. And Kettlewell’s experiments famously supported bird predation as a primary cause of natural selection acting on these populations. Birds, it seemed, also went for the out-of-place moths, the ones whose color scheme was at a mismatch with the state of the tree bark in the area.

As Majerus notes,

“The peppered moth story is easy to understand, because it involves things that we are familiar with: vision and predation and birds and moths and pollution and camouflage and lunch and death,” he said. “That is why the anti-evolution lobby attacks the peppered moth story. They are frightened that too many people will be able to understand.”

Bravo, Michael Majerus. That captures the essence of the opposition in a nutshell.

One often hears evolution deniers saying that they don’t have an issue with “microevolution”. One can discover just how much stock to put into that by looking at how much effort they put into disputing or dismissing examples of within-species evolution. The result is that they put a lot of effort into gainsaying microevolutionary examples, and thus their assertions to the contrary are falsehoods. All that remains to determine is whether those are deliberate falsehoods or not. Given the incredibly poor background evolution deniers generally have in the fields they criticize, it certainly is the case that a great many of the followers of the antievolution movement pass along those falsehoods because they put their trust in the professional evolution deniers, who tell them that these are good arguments to make. The professionals, though, don’t have that easy out. They have represented themselves as authorities on the issues, and yet they are still passing falsehoods.

Take, for instance, Dr. Dr. John C. “Jonathan” Wells, who made a point of pursuing his second doctorate for the express purpose of better being able to pursue “destroying Darwinism” for Rev. Sun Myung Moon. His field for his first doctorate was some form religious studies at Yale, but his second was developmental biology at U.C. Berkeley. In 1999, Wells published a book, “Icons of Evolution”, which features a chapter casting doubt on peppered moth research, saying that it the mechanism of natural selection was not properly established as the cause of observed changes in frequency of color morphs in the population. In online discussions, he accused the research — and the presentation of that research in textbooks — as being “fraud, fraud, fraud”. Along the way, Wells claimed that peppered moths never rest on tree trunks (Majerus has data showing that they are observed on tree trunks about a quarter of the time; certainly not their very favorite place to be, but not out of bounds for where they can be seen), and that all photographs of peppered moths on tree trunks were “faked” (Majerus also has photographs of live, unrestrained specimens on tree trunks, plus there is the point that the purpose of the photographs of pinned moths is not to represent a “typical resting place”, but to illustrate crypsis, for which any sort of moth, pinned or unpinned, serves equally well).

Now that Majerus is weighing in that the conclusions of the original research are supported by his recent experiments, one can see the casual backpedaling on the part of evolution deniers. Despite the fact that they were, quite recently, telling us that this example of microevolution was in trouble and that we should downgrade our opinion of any textbook that used the peppered moth research in a positive light as an example of natural selection observed in action, now they are trying to shift the goalposts, saying that there was no speciation involved in these populations. Well, duh. Speciation would be a macroevolutionary event, but that was never a claim made with respect to the peppered moths. Evolution deniers wanted to deny that there were any appreciable instances of observed changes in traits happening due to natural selection. They put a lot of effort into trying to smear Bernard Kettlewell’s reputation, including a book-length character assassination by Judith Hooper (but don’t expect to hear a word about that in the “Expelled” film coming up; there is a word for that behavior, and it is hypocrisy) and cast doubt on peppered moths as an example of natural selection in action. But they just cannot bring themselves to admit error here.

Links: Alan Gishlick covers peppered moths for NCSE

Mike Dunford responds to Jonathan Wells’s new attack on peppered moths

Lunar Eclipse

I’ve just come inside from watching the lunar eclipse. It was approaching totality as my sightline dropped below the treeline. I did have the telescope and camera out, but I don’t know yet whether I’ve got anything usable. I’ll put something up later if so.

Those night owls or early risers in the western USA, western Canada, Hawaii, Alaska, other points in the Pacific Basin have a bit of time left to view the eclipse.

Open Letter from Peter Irons to Stuart Pivar

I received a copy of an open letter from Peter Irons to Stuart Pivar concerning the Pivar v. SMG and Myers defamation lawsuit. It sounds like Pivar has opened himself up to significant liability by pursuing the lawsuit.

Dear Mr. Pivar:

I don’t know if this is a current email address for you; I obtained it from the Internet by accessing some of your 2004 correspondence regarding the NYAA affair.

First, let me introduce myself. I am a lawyer (a graduate of Harvard Law School) and am admitted to practice before several state and federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court. I also was on the faculty of Boston College Law School and the University of California, San Diego, where I taught constitutional law from 1982 until my retirement in 2004. My legal specialty is First Amendment law, including the law of defamation, about which I have written in several books and law review articles. I mention this background, quite frankly, to impress you with my credentials in this field, which are substantially greater than those of Michael J. Little.

I might also add that I was a close friend of Stephen Jay Gould, from our college days in the 1950s until his death in 2002. Steve and I were neighbors in Cambridge for many years, and talked extensively about his work in evolutionary biology and paleontology. As an aside, if Steve were still alive, I think he would have a viable defamation action against you for your false statements about his views, but that’s a moot point.

Over the past week, I have become very familiar with your defamation suit against Seed Media Group and Professor Paul Z. Myers, about which I learned from several legal and science blogs that I follow. I have carefully read the complaint that Mr. Little filed on August 16 in the Federal District Court in New York City.

In my professional opinion, this is a very poorly drafted complaint, with no legal merit whatever. I won’t discuss its stylistic deficiencies, which are numerous and which show evidence of haste and sloppiness by Mr. Little, which Judge Scheindlin will surely notice.

On a substantive level, the complaint will never survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be based.” You allege defamation by Professor Myers on the sole basis of his characterization of the revised edition of your Lifecode book as the work of “a classic crackpot.” This was in the context of a fairly lengthy review of your book (following an earlier review of your book’s first version) that was not included or even referenced in Mr. Little’s complaint.

As Mr. Little should have known, by due diligence, Professor Myers’ characterization was protected opinion, not a false statement of fact. As such, it is immune from defamation actions. Mr. Little cited, in paragraph 21 of the complaint, a single case to support your action: McFadden v. U.S. Fidelity & Guarantee Co. (766 So.2d 20). I have carefully read this opinion, which has no precedential value in any state or federal court. The claim in Mr. Little’s complaint that in this case “[t]term ‘crackpot’ was considered as actionable as slander per se” in simply not true. This case was remanded by the Mississippi Court of Appeals to the trial court; no trial was held on this question and no subsequent opinion was issued.

More to the point, and a case Mr. Little should have discovered by due diligence, is an opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Dilworth v. Dudley et al., 75 F.3d 307 (7th Cir. 1996). For your edification, and that of Mr. Little as well, let me summarize and quote from this opinion, written by Chief Judge Richard Posner, one of the most highly respected federal appellate judges. The case involved a book by a mathematics professor at DePauw University, in which he characterized an article by an engineer and amateur mathematicians as the work of a “crank,” a term that is synonymous with “crackpot.” In upholding the district judge’s dismissal of this defamation case under Rule 12(b)(6), Judge Posner wrote that the term “crank” is an opinion and “is mere ‘rhetorical hyperbole.’ … To call a pereson a crank is basically just acolorful and insulting way of expressing disagreement with [the author’s] master idea, and it therefore belongs to the language of controversy rather than to the language of defamation.” In my opinion, Judge Scheindlin would be more impressed with Judge Posner’s opinion than in dictum from a Mississippi judge. Judge Posner, by the way, also wrote that terms like “scab,” “traitor,” “fake” and “phony” (far more pejorative than “crackpot”) “are incapable of defaming because they are mere hyperbole….” Judge Posner added, “By publishing your views you invite public criticism and rebuttal; you enter voluntarily in one of the submarkets of ideas and opinions and consent therefore to the rough competition of the marketplace.”

So, in my opinion, Judge Scheindlin will promptly dismiss your suit. Assuming, for sake of argument, that she does not, your suit faces several insurmountable evidentiary obstacles. First, your complaint alleges that your Lifecode book, in both the 2004 and 2007 versions, was published by “Ryland Press, Inc.” My research has turned up no such publisher anywhere in the world. There is, in New York and London, a publisher called Ryland, Peters & Small, but during my recent telephone conversation with a member of their staff, I was told they did not publish your book (they specialize in cookbooks and stationery). So you would certainly be asked during discovery to identify and produce records from “Ryland Press,” including sales figures. I also talked with Terry Krohn at Axiom House, which advertises your second Lifecode book; he told me it was not published by him, that he listed it as a favor to you, and that it had no sales to date. It would be impossible for you to prove even one dollar of damages, let alone $15 million.

Finally, you and Mr. Little are subject to monetary sanctions under Rule 11 of the FRCP; I’ll let Mr. Little explain that to you, since he is presumed to know of this potential consequence of filing a meritless suit.

Let me emphasize that I am sending you my opinions as a private party; I do not represent anyone in this suit. You are free to disregard my opinions but, if I were you, I would consider them carefully and instruct Mr. Little to promptly withdraw the complaint.

Peter Irons, Esq.

Texas: 2 out of 3 State Board Members Say No to Requiring IDC

State board members oppose teaching intelligent design in schools | – Houston Chronicle

10 of the 15 Texas state board of education members told the Houston Chronicle that they did not favor requiring “intelligent design” in science classes.

That sounds good, but there are a couple of problems.

First off, there’s the “requiring” language. The Discovery Institute Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture has made it a talking point not to ask for IDC to be required in public school science classes, but that teachers should be “permitted” to teach IDC if the Lord so moves them if they want to. So the Chronicle article, useful as it is, doesn’t take us past rhetoric the DI has already deployed.

Second, there’s too much fixation on labels, and not enough on content. We know that the antievolutionists are adept at picking out new labels for the same old tired, bogus, narrowly sectarian arguments they’ve been trying to keep or put back in schools for many decades. We’ve seen “creationism”, “scientific creationism”, “creation science”, “intelligent design”, “critical analysis”, and now it seems to be time for “strengths and weaknesses”, or even just “weaknesses”. Speaking of which, here is Texas SBOE chair Don McLeroy:

“Creationism and intelligent design don’t belong in our science classes,” said Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, who described himself as a creationist. “Anything taught in science has to have consensus in the science community and intelligent design does not.”

McLeroy, R-College Station, said he doesn’t want to change the existing requirement that evolution be taught in high school biology classes. But he joined several of his colleagues in arguing that biology textbooks should cover the weaknesses of the theory of evolution.

McLeroy and three other socially conservative board members voted against the current biology texts in 2003 over the evolution issue. The textbook debate comes up again in 2011.

Well, the thing is that the “weaknesses” that McLeroy is itching to require teachers to introduce into their classrooms turn out to be exactly the same old tired, bogus, narrowly sectarian arguments that they used to pitch as “intelligent design”. Yeah, keep that ID stuff out, but put in this stuff here… They are betting that the citizens of Texas, having rejected a wheelbarrow load of manure, will be dumb enough to accept the same wheelbarrow load of manure if they drape a different sign over it.

Whale beached in Galveston fighting to stay alive

Whale beached in Galveston fighting to stay alive | – Houston Chronicle

The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network has a live stranding once again, this time a dwarf sperm whale calf. Both the mother and calf came ashore as a tropical storm hit Galveston on Saturday, but the mother died.

Diane and I did volunteer work with the TMMSN while we lived in Galveston, from 1994 to 1998. While the live stranded animals get the press response, as in this current case of the dwarf sperm whale calf, TMMSN recovers many, many dead stranded animals for every live stranding that happens. Dr. Dan Cowan of University of Texas Medical Branch does necropsies on the dead animals to obtain further information about the health status of marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico.

But when a live stranding happens, TMMSN has to mobilize squads of volunteers for around-the-clock care of the stranded animal. Veterinary care is arranged, and the logistics of setting up a recovery tank, maintaining its water quality, and providing an appropriate diet have to be done, and done quickly. Live strandings are uncommon and full rehabilitation and release are pretty rare. Generally, cetaceans have to be pretty ill or disoriented to end up as stranded animals. There is a lot of Texas coastline, so one would expect prompt response only in the case of stranding along fairly popular areas. In the present case, the stranding took place at Jamaica Beach, a small town on the west end of Galveston Island, and during the summer vacation season.

TMMSN and other marine mammal stranding organizations around the country could use financial help to do their job. If you have the means, please do contribute. If you are in the Galveston area, consider volunteering with TMMSN. They will need pretty much everyone available to fill out schedules during a live stranding.

Upgrade Woes

The server software is being upgraded, and my weblog doesn’t like it.

Photopress is the most notable casualty among the plugins. Since most of the photos I’ve posted here have been entered via Photopress, that means most of the photos now have silently disappeared.

I’ll be working on this, but a few other things still have higher priority. It may be a few days.

Update: Did an upgrade to WP 2.2.2 and updated the Photopress settings. Things seem better now.

Backyard Wildlife; 2007/08/15

While Diane is visiting her parents in Florida, I’m taking care of the various critters. After I finished the rounds this evening, I took a walk down to the pond. The day has been overcast, and we got some sprinkled rain earlier. Down where we had sand put in next to the dock, I could see that either several deer or one very active one had been by.

I went slowly out to the end of the dock. Looking around, I finally spotted six ducks at the southwest end. They spotted me, too, and flew off about thirty seconds after I arrived. The water level has dropped to about two and a half feet below the level of the dock. Back in late March, water almost covered the dock’s surface. I spent a couple of minutes there watching the water. I had wondered whether I would be able to spot turtles, or even if our small pond might have them, and I was rewarded with a definite sighting of about an eight-inch long pond slider-like turtle coming up to take a breath about ten feet away.

That’s about all I had time for today. I’m still working up overdue stuff.

Texas SBOE Chair Don McLeroy on Antievolution

Texas Freedom Network: SBOE Chair Don McLeroy

The Texas Freedom Network, the pro-science folks on the ground in Texas, managed to locate and transcribe a talk given by Don McLeroy to his church back in 2005. This is relevant today because McLeroy now chairs the Texas State Board of Education. Within the talk, McLeroy goes on and on about following the strategy outlined by “intelligent design” advocate Phillip E. Johnson. And you will note that while careful antievolutionists discuss teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution (then later determining that, oh, well, talking about the weaknesses has used up all the time for this section of the biology class), McLeroy at several points says that what he is for is teaching the “weaknesses” of evolution, and especially common descent.

Another notable bit from McLeroy is this,

But I want to tell you all the arguments made by all the intelligent design group, all the creationist intelligent design people, I can guarantee the other side heard exactly nothing.

I’ve emphasized the part McLeroy got right. How about the rest? Well, it’s not that the pro-science people in attendance “heard exactly nothing”, it’s that they have heard it all before. The IDC advocates and “strengths and weaknesses” crowd are pushing the same things that have been argued by their “creation science”, “scientific creationism”, and “creationism” predecessors, some of them dating back at least a couple of hundred years.

Like most antievolutionists, McLeroy doesn’t like theistic evolution.

I’d like to make a quick comment about the option of theistic evolution, and it’s a very poor option. There’s not anybody in our group that’s advocating this. Because Darwinism doesn’t allow God to do anything. Consider natural selection of random mutations. If they’re random mutations, they can’t be God-directed, and if they’re naturally selected, you can’t have, quote, “God-selecteds.” And so no one in our group represents theistic evolution, and the big tent of intelligent design does not include theistic evolutionists. Because intelligent design is opposed to evolution. Theistic evolutionists embrace it. So, you know, there are some in the Christian camp that just say, “Well, I am a theistic evolutionist.” And there are some bright minds that are that way, but they aren’t part really of the intelligent design group. It just doesn’t fit.

McLeroy seems to be unaware that scripture supports the idea of God acting through randomized, stochastic processes. Far from excluding God’s action, a random process permits God to indicate His own choices in a way beyond the ability of humans to influence or penetrate. I think that the deterministic view of the world that emerged from natural philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries did something to the way Western Christian theology considered random processes. Confronted with the data from the physics of the time, when the “clockwork universe” idea was the vogue, and I think that various streams of thought in theology eventually adopted the view of God as ultimate clockmaker (though not without a significant period of considering it either heretical or close to it), an assumption inimical to the earlier view that randomness was also a place where one would find the hand of God. Far from being a “very poor option”, theistic evolution and evolutionary creationism preserve faith and eliminate friction with the findings of science. McLeroy, though, is simply following the lead of various IDC advocates who insist that theistic evolutionists don’t understand either or both biology and theology, or are deluded, or are otherwise giving aid and comfort to the “enemy”. This was perhaps most clearly seen in the 2005 hearings before the Kansas State Board of Education concerning the “minority report” version of the new science standards.

Consider that sentence of McLeroy’s, “Because Darwinism doesn’t allow God to do anything.” There is a difference between not crediting God with an action and excluding God as a cause. Natural selection cannot exclude God; there simply is nothing that would extend the reach of statements about natural selection in biology into that realm of metaphysics. But on the other hand, antievolutionists find the idea that science will not validate their interpretation of scripture to be anathema. There must be something “wrong” with science if credit cannot be given to God within the framework that science operates. Theistic evolutionists usually have greater faith in God than literalist antievolutionists; most theistic evolutionists are not looking for external validation from science.

In any case, the Texas Freedom Network has done an outstanding job here, showing vividly that McLeroy’s agenda is not advancing students’ grasp of science, but rather in promoting anti-science notions and failed antievolution arguments as things students should credulously accept as current science.

Judge Limits Navy Sonar, Citing a Threat to Wildlife

Judge Limits Navy Sonar, Citing a Threat to Wildlife – New York Times

The US Navy has been barred from using its mid-frequency sonar systems in naval exercises off of southern California. The Natural Resources Defense Council sought the injunction.

The reporting on this issue has improved over time. It used to be that reporters did not distinguish between different sonar systems, and various environmental groups exploited that vagueness to argue that “Navy sonar” harmed cetaceans. Some sonar systems deployed by the US Navy, and other navies around the world, do have a record of harming certain taxa of cetaceans, but others do not. The article leads off,

A federal judge on Monday ordered the Navy to stop using medium-range sonar in training exercises off Southern California, saying that the Navy’s own assessments predicted that dozens of marine mammals, particularly deep-diving whales, could be harmed by the intense sound waves.

There are two apparent vaguenesses or inaccuracies in the above. It is unclear whether the reporter introduced them, or simply passed them on from a confused court. There is the distinction made about “medium-range sonar”; this is an odd way to refer to mid-frequency sonar systems, which are the ones implicated in various stranding incidents involving cetaceans. Then there is the “predicted that dozens of marine mammals, particularly deep-diving whales, could be harmed” part of the sentence. Does this refer to the number of individuals, and under what circumstances does that prediction hold? How many different species might be included? The previous sonar-related stranding incidents showed a particular sensitivity of whales in the genera Ziphius and Mesoplodon (the beaked whales, which are deep divers); are these the ones referred to here? It’s tough to tell.

There’s something else odd in the article. Consider these two paragraphs,

The Navy has argued that without training on this widely used system, sailors’ ability to detect enemy vessels is severely hampered. Active sonar, at various frequencies, has been developed over the past two decades as diesel engines on military craft became quieter and harder to detect with passive sonar.

Donald R. Schregardus, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for the environment, said, “The decision puts sailors and marines at risk by ordering the Navy to stop critical antisubmarine warfare training while we complete environmental impact statements on our training ranges.”

Active sonar used for sinking subs dates back to World War II. Now, I doubt that any of the systems developed then are still in use by the US Navy, but “active sonar” as a class of equipment does have a much longer history. In fact, one of the beaked whale mass stranding events associated with mid-frequency sonar was back in the early 1960s (1962 or 63, IIRC), which considerably predates “over the past two decades”. But the real stinker in the first of those quoted paragraphs is, “as diesel engines on military craft became quieter and harder to detect with passive sonar”. That, coupled with the topic identified in the second paragraph of “antisubmarine warfare”, indicates massive confusion somewhere in the construction of the article. First off, most of the submarines of interest don’t use diesel engines. Unless we are concerned about Brazil’s submarine fleet, we aren’t primarily trying to detect the presence of diesel-powered subs. What has gotten much better in the way of submarine running gear is the propeller. Remember the flap over Toshiba trading with the USSR? What the USSR got was computer-controlled machining equipment that would allow them to manufacture submarine propellers to extremely fine tolerances, reducing cavitation and turbulence, and thus making their subs much, much quieter. That’s why the Navy has an interest in active sonar systems.

Behe on Colbert

Michael Behe made an appearance on the “Colbert Report” last night. There’s a handy YouTube video for those who weren’t able to tune in.

Once you’ve seen that, go have a look at Abbie Smith’s ripping of mistakes Behe made in his book pontificating about HIV evolution.

Humane Societies… Telling the Real Ones from the Fakes

It’s pretty easy, actually. Real humane societies and shelters are affiliated with animal welfare organizations, like the 130-year-old American Humane Association, whose mission statement reads:


The mission of the American Humane Association, as a network of individuals and organizations, is to prevent cruelty, abuse, neglect, and exploitation of children and animals and to assure that their interests and well-being are fully, effectively, and humanely guaranteed by an aware and caring society.

American Humane envisions a nation where no child or animal will ever be a victim of willful abuse or neglect. As a recognized leader in professional education, training and advocacy, research and evaluation, American Humane joins with other similarly missioned individuals and organizations to make this vision a reality.

Fakes, though, are affiliated with animal rights organizations, like the misleadingly named Humane Society of the United States. That group is notorious for cashing in on the good reputation of the American Humane Association (AHA), even though HSUS is a far more recently organized outfit and didn’t have a thing to do with the successes of the AHA. This isn’t to say that the fakes haven’t gotten on the bandwagon of pushing legitimate reforms already suggested by animal welfare advocates. But their participation is best considered a form of crypsis, since they have an agenda that goes far beyond the laudable aims of animal welfare.

Support animal welfare. Don’t get conned by animal rights groups trying to disguise themselves as animal welfare advocates.

An Anti-Falconry Rant … from the Right-Wing?

Over on “Men’s News Daily”, the “Nobody’s Opinion” column goes on and on interminably about how falconry is practiced by the rich and “environmental nut” control freaks. It takes a while to find what has set off this guy, but eventually he gets around to it:

Bobby Kennedy I was reading today…absolutely loves this sport. Bobby, who was taught by his father, partakes in this historical “field sport” so much, even teaching it to his children, that Bobby would think nothing of saying, “Do you want to see if we can bump some bunnies before sunset?”

Ah, yes, there’s a motivator: the visceral hate of various right-wing commentators for anything related to the Kennedys. I’m sure that “driving” itself would also come in for its share of abuse if only a minority of Americans, and Teddy Kennedy, practiced it.

Rich falconers… pretty rare in my experience. I certainly don’t qualify on that score. Fly anywhere to hunt? You’ve gotta be kidding. Most of the vehicles seen at falconry meets bespeak very limited budgets and frugality. I know exactly one falconer who flies her own Cessna various places, and even she isn’t more than “comfortably well off” in my opinion.

Control freaks? Some are, some aren’t. I haven’t noticed a disproportionate number of those taking to falconry. Diane and I don’t even hunt our birds from the glove. When we are in the field, Rusty and Shelby are interacting with the dogs in their own way and at their own pace. If you want as much control as possible when hunting, you don’t do falconry, you get a shotgun. Especially since control freaks tend not to understand operant conditioning and using only positive reinforcement; those who don’t tend to be watching their birds fly off, never to be seen by them again.

Environmental nuts? I think it best if we don’t wreck the environment, sure, but pretty much any falconry meet I’ve been to has its share of vehicles sporting Bush/Cheney bumper stickers, too.

Eating prey items? We’ve eaten various upland birds that Rusty has caught, and a couple of rabbits, but most of what Rusty catches goes in the freezer for Rusty to eat over the molt. The word for this blog, “austringer”, comes from the distinction of class made between noble “falconers” who flew longwing birds, and common “austringers” who were only permitted to fly shortwing hawks, especially the goshawk, in order to take meat for the table. The goshawk’s appellation was “the cook’s bird” during the middle ages.

Bumping bunnies before sunset? Dusk and dawn are the times when rabbits generally get active and hawks can see them, so that at least makes some sense, if one is speaking within the limits of the established rabbit hunting season. Also, “hunting” is not “catching”; most of the flights Rusty or Shelby make to game end up with the prey item getting away. Also, we didn’t “train” either Rusty or Shelby to kill prey. They learned all they needed to know on that score from their parents in the wild.

But here’s a fact: The environmentalist Bobby tells us that 80% of raptors die during their first year trying to master the art of killing game, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to train the other 20%.

Add innumeracy and/or simple ignorance to the ranter’s other traits. Falconers in the USA are prohibited from taking haggard birds, that is, birds in their adult plumage who are on the far side of that first-year mortality bump. The trapping season for passage birds precedes that big bump in first-year mortality, so the odds are that about 4 out of 5 passage falconry birds would not have survived, and the odds that anyone has one that might have been part of “the other 20%” are themselves 1 in 5 if we assume a uniform trapping distribution. One could argue that trapping itself is skewed toward catching birds that early on are having some difficulties, which would make it even less likely that a falconer is taking part of the population that would do fine anyway. This is why apprentices thus far trap passage birds: if something goes wrong, there is a smaller likelihood that they have had an impact on the wild population. An apprentice bird typically gets a good diet and veterinary care to eliminate parasites, so if they return to the wild later, they actually may be in better shape than if they had spent their whole time trying to get through that first winter on their own.

The ranter finishes up with,

So, what do you think?

I think that if you want to say Bobby Kennedy is somebody that you don’t like and that you wouldn’t want to do the things he does, say that. Falconry isn’t an exclusionary club that we control who does it. For those of us who aren’t rich, control freaks, or absolutely “nutty” on environmental issues, but who still like to give our birds the opportunity to fly at some bunnies before bedtime, I think that you owe us an apology.