Evolution-denier Casey Luskin attacks new fossil find using evolution principles

A recent Nature paper describes the finding of the flightless, feathered dinosaur Epidexipteryx hui. The paper describes a well-preserved fossil of Epidexipteryx found in northern China that dates to about 152 to 168 million years ago.  It was a pigeon-sized creature with small feathers unsuitable for flight and four long tail feathers that are thought to be ornamental.

This finding is particularly interesting because it helps fill in the gaps of the change from feathered dinosaurs to true birds.  The creature had some interesting characteristics. For one, its feathers are not like the typical feathers of today’s birds or even other feathered dinosaurs of the time.  They don’t contain the typical central shaft of extant birds.  Also, it appears to be the first animal to have large display feathers.  For a little more information, checkout this MSNBC article.

Predictably, Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute wrote a blog post criticizing these findings and how they were perceived by the media.  His main contention is that this fossil looks like it could have been a “secondarily flightless bird.”  In other words, he believes that this evidence shows that there used to be flying birds during the middle Jurassic era and some evolved into flightless birds.  There are at least a couple things wrong with his reasoning as an anti-evolution, pro-intelligent design proponent.

Luskin seems to be proving aspects of evolution while saying that the given hypothesis is wrong. He states:

Epidexipteryx hui may not be a “feathered dinosaur” at all, but instead was a bird that lost its ability to fly while retaining feathers”

Doesn’t this sound suspiciously like evolution? The change of a bird going from a flying animal to a flightless one would be considered a strong candidate of speciation. That’s funny, since one of the most often used talking point for intelligent design is that evolution could not lead to speciation.  Sounds to me like Luskin believes in evolution and speciation only when he can use it to argue against new research findings.

Luskin also assumes one important thing with his argument that this creature is just a secondarily-flightless bird. He assumes that there were already birds living at the time. There weren’t as far as we know.  Therefore, his whole argument is vacuous. The first real bird is believed to be Archaeopteryx, which lived at least 2 million years after Epidexipteryx hui.

After reading Luskin’s post, it seems to me that really only have two options. You can believe the well-thought out and evidence-supported timeline of dinosaurs evolving into birds. The other option is to believe the ID-proponent’s unsupported view that Epidexipteryx evolved from preexisting birds that we cannot find. Either way, you have to believe in evolutionary change, but only one is reasonable.

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The Discovery Institute’s criticisms of Texas pro-science reviewers have little substance

In a series of posts over at the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News and Views blog, Casey Luskin attacks the position of the three pro-science reviewers of the proposed changes to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).  The main change in the new standards is to remove the language of “strengths and weaknesses” when addressing evolutionary theory.  In my mind, the reason to remove that language is that it is unnecessary and only pseudoscientific criticisms exist and any weaknesses are above the level and scope of K-12 education.  But let us see what Luskin has to say:

Luskin starts off by using and abusing the "Academic Freedom" Day slogan originally written by Darwin:

In Origin of Species, Charles Darwin famously wrote, ”A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” One might think that modern proponents of Darwin’s ideas would endorse his approach to scientific thinking within evolution education, but it’s not so.

The reason I would not endorse this approach at such an early level of science education is due to the amount of basic information required to really address a scientific issue. We don’t want to have to "rediscover the wheel" every other day with students.  I really believe that it takes post-graduate education in a related field to be relevant.  Just like you have to learn your ABCs before you can read; you have to learn basics before you can attack a theory.

David Hillis

Luskin first criticizes University of Texas at Austin professor David Hillis. Hillis quite appropriately points out that "asking students in Grade 5 to analyze, review, and critique any modern day biological theories is absurd" Hillis goes on to argue that the full body of evidence that leads to a modern scientific theory can’t be taught in a K-12 timeframe. Luskin response is to simply say that students have the "right" to hear contrary views. Since when is education, information, and reality subject to "rights."

One of Hillis’ recommendations is to keep the idea of critically thinking about science by having students "analyze, review, and critique examples of scientific hypotheses." As, Luskin points out, the key word here is "hypotheses." I believe this is a good idea since it retains the ability for student’s to learn critical thinking skills without having to attack modern scientific theories. However, Luskin says that Hillis’ approach will stifle critical thinking and teach students how to conform and think as dogmatists. I guess it only counts as critical thinking if you attack modern scientific theories with pseudoscience according to Luskin. I would really like to hear why critical thinking can only be taught in reference to evolution.

Ronald Wetherington

In his second post which attacks Southern Methodist University professor Ronald Wetherington, Luskin brings up (again) a silly criticism of the pro-evolution reviewers of the TEKS:

"The TEKS reviews submitted by Stephen Meyer, Ralph Seelke, and Charles Garner in support of students applying critical thinking skills to evolution were each over 25 pages in length. In contrast, two of the three Darwinist reviewers submitted reviews that were 8 pages or less. "

Luskin somehow believes writing more means that the pro-intelligent design reviewers did a better job. I guess in his mind it does not pay to be concise? Does he think it is better to be long winded and bring in extraneous information and ideas? I guess so since he has brought up the differing lengths of the reviewers in each post as if it is somehow gives credence to his position.

Luskin criticizes Ronald Wetherington’s recommendation that the “strengths and weaknesses language be removed.  In describing why he thinks that the language should be removed, Wetherington makes the point that:

The strength of any hypothesis is its provisions for falsifiability, and without this it, technically, is not a hypothesis! As to “theory”, this will be very difficult using current theories, because the careful analysis of the legitimate ones requires more sophistication than the student will be capable of.  As a process skill for the 5th grade, however, the teacher can use any of a large number of earlier theories which have since been altered or discredited, 

Essentially, Wetherington is suggesting that the students could critically analyze old theories, such as a geocentric universe.  I think this is a really good idea.  But if you listen to the ID proponents the only way to teach critical thinking is by attacking evolution.  

Gerald Skoog 

In his third post, Luskin addresses the third pro-science reviewer, Texas Tech professor Gerald Skoog. Luskin complains that :

Like Wetherington and Hillis, TEKS reviewer Gerald Skoog wants the TEKS to include many more standards on evolution which dogmatically only present the evidence for evolution.

I guess according to Luskin, presenting evidence is somehow not a good idea. Maybe it is because there is no evidence for intelligent design? Maybe its because there is no evidence against evolution? Either way, you can see how an ID proponent wouldn’t want evidence discussed.

To support his idea that teaching the evidence for evolution is somehow not the way go, he quotes another TEKS reviewer and ID proponent, Stephen Meyer:

For those who insist that there are no "weaknesses" in the traditional case for universal common ancestry, let me cite a few examples: (1) The fossil record shows a pattern of explosions of new life-forms that contradicts the predictions and expectations of universal common descent and suggests the possibility of a discontinuous (polyphyletic) view of the history of life, rather than a continuous (monophyletic) view of the history of life. … (2) … there are numerous cases where conflicts exist between different types of gene-based evolutionary trees, thus challenging the very evidence and methodology used to infer common descent from "molecular homologies.

First, the "conflicts" between different methodologies to calculate evolutionary trees does not challenge their existence. This is a gross exaggeration. These "conflicts" arise due to different algorithms used in calculations and are highly dependent on which genes were chosen for analysis. Even with these conflicts, highly reproducible trees are able to be created.  The fact that any phylogenetic trees can be created is strong support for evolution. As to his so-called “explosions of new life-forms,” I really have no idea what he is talking about.  I certainly hope he isn’t referring to the Cambrian explosion.

At the end of Luskin’s post, he does a bit of scaremongering by insinuating that a belief in evolution makes someone godless. He quotes Skoog where he recommends including language that refers to the implications of common descent. Luskin runs with this idea and pulls random quotes that seem to point to the implication of believing in evolution are that you believe in "materialism" and not God.  

I don’t know what Skoog meant by implications, but I can make a few guesses. Maybe he is referring to the implication that since we all have a common ancestor, then we can use what we know about animals and apply it to humans (i.e. medical advances). Maybe he is referring to the implication that if we are related to animals, then maybe we will all treat animals a little better.  Either way, this is a scare tactic without any basis.

All together, I don’t think that Luskin makes a good point to as why would should leave in the “strength and weaknesses” language.  The reviewers have suggested other ways to teach critical thinking instead of attacking a well supported theory.  I guess we will just have to see what happens. 

The Discovery Institute opens its doors

Kate Holden has sent out a challenge for any evolution proponent to visit the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington.  She is one of two women who visited the institute in disguise as Christian schoolteachers.  In response to their undercover visit, Casey Luskin has sent them a letter where he states that

I say the same things to everyone, whether they are pro-ID or anti-ID (yes, open ID-skeptics have come in before!).  Had you said “We’re ID skeptics” I would have said, “Awesome, that’s great.  How can I answer your questions and what materials would you like me to give you?”

So, Kate wants to take him up on his word.  She also wants your trials, tribulations, and stories from your visit.  Unfortunately, I do not live anywhere near Seattle, but I encourage anyone in the vicinity to go for a fun little visit.  Directions are below.

google maps

live maps

Update: Whoops, it is both Kate and Tiana. Sorry! Also look for them to be on an upcoming episode of the excellent podcast, skepticality.

Scientist behind fish-tetrapod find calls out Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin

Over at A Free Man, there is an interview with

Catherine Boisvert

Catherine Boisvert

. Boisvert was the first author on the recent paper that showed the underlying fingerlike structures of the prehistoric fish, Panderichthys. I wrote about the recent findings and the Discovery Institute’s response here. At that time, Casey Luskin argued that scientists were engaging in “Retroactive Confession of Ignorance.” He claimed that she was attacking the quality and relevance of another prehistoric fish, Tiktaalik (original emphasis):

Confident that her fossil showed evolution better than Tiktaalik, Boisvert and other Darwinists then proceeded to admit striking criticisms of Tiktaalik. The interview with Boisvert at The Scientist states, “Previous data from another ancient fish called Tiktaalik showed distal radials as well — although the quality of that specimen was poor.

During the interview,  they asked Catherine Boisvert about Luskin’s description of her words:

AFM: The creationist Discovery Institute has pounced on some of the statements in your paper regarding sample quality as evidence that scientists are trying to backpedal on previous hypotheses regarding digit development and evolution. Can you clarify your statements regarding sample quality of Tiktaalik and Panderichthys?

CB: As you know, the “Discovery” Institute tactic is not to go to the primary literature in order to understand it but rather to use quotations from secondary, even tertiary sources, reorganise or use them out of context opportunistically to their own convenience. In this case, they used an article where the journalists unfortunately misunderstood me. Tiktaalik’s material is in fact exquisite, it is very well preserved, basically uncrushed and can be prepared out to be examined in three dimensions. I never said the quality was poor. I have simply explained that the morphology of the fin of Panderichthys is more tetrapod-like than that of Tiktaalik, which has nothing to do with the quality of the material.

Of course we already knew that Luskin wasn’t going to be honest with his readers when he is quoting an evolution proponent, but it is nice to hear it directly from the source.  I encourage you to read the rest of the interview. She is a fascinating scientist and is surely someone that we should all keep an eye on.

hat tip: Panda’s Thumb

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Darwin Day > Academic Freedom Day

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

The Discovery Institute decided to have an “Academic Freedom” day on the same day as Darwin Day, February 12, 2009. It seems that they can’t let scientists and evolution believers actually have any fun without some sort of attack. Of course what they really mean by Academic Freedom is the freedom to be devoid of reality. It even has a slogan taken from Charles Darwin himself:

A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.

What a great and appropriate quote! So what would a fair result be in the evolution/ID debate?  Let’s see…Clearly the facts are on the side of evolution. Fossil evidence, genetic evidence, and experimental evidence point to evolution. The argument of random mutation and natural selection is clear, concise and elegant. Intelligent design has no supporting fact and its arguments consist of denial and logical fallacies. I am thinking that evolution is somehow coming out ahead.  How fortunate for evolution proponents that they picked such a slogan!

Just as an aside, I am a big supporter of academic freedom. Real academic freedom. What the Discovery Institute is peddling is ideology and pseudoscience wrapped in the protection of the word freedom. You can have all the freedom you want, but science is fact based and not a democracy.

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This is the second time that I have been blog-tagged, so I guess it is time to respond to them (and inflict the pain on someone else).

My most recent tagging comes from Scepticon. The idea for this one is to list 6 random facts about yourself.  Here are the rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Write six random things about yourself.
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

My six:2007-gt-cs-sm1

1. I really like fast cars. They are like roller coasters with cup holders.  I like the way they look,  the way they sound, and the way they feel. I am currently driving a 2007 Mustang GT/CS pictured here.

2. My favorite podcasts are The Skeptic’s Guide, Skepticality, Astronomy Cast and TWIT.  I also listen to Windows Weekly and sometimes Macbreak weekly, even though I do not own a single Apple product.

3. I like the smell of TEMED.

4. I love video games, but never play them.  My 360 is gathering dust now.

5. I have been listening to the same Modest Mouse songs on my hour long bus ride for probably 3 years.

6.  My name comes from the Simpsons episode [2F01], Itchy and Scratchy Land.

My first time being tagged was from Microbiologist XX and I am supposed to list some of the most embarrassing/crappy music on my iPod.  Since my “iPod” only has podcasts on it, I guess I will have to use my laptop instead.

Crappy music on my computer:

1.Kidz Bop 14

2.Random hip-hop   (not necessarily bad, but I am Captain white-boy, so it is kinda weird)

3. Girl Talk

The first unlucky victim of tagging goes to: 

Ejdalise’s blog

Surprise! 3 intelligent design proponents recommend keeping antievolution language

The Discovery Institute’s blog Evolution News and Views tells us that "Science Education Experts Recommend Strengthening Students’ Critical Thinking Skills by Retaining “Strengths and Weaknesses” Language in Texas Science Standards." This post, written by Robert Crowther is referring to the fact that three of the six experts brought in to review the proposed standards have recommended that the language remain in the science standards. These three members are Stephen Meyer, Charles Garner, and Ralph Seelke. Guess what? Each of these reviewers support Intelligent Design! I guess this post should be filed under the captain obvious category.

Lets address a couple of the points presented in the post.  First, why did the group recommend keeping the language? As Casey Luskin points out:

Examining the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories is a core part of the scientific process, and abandoning such critical analysis merely to satisfy ideological demands of Darwinists harms students by giving them a false view of scientific inquiry.

What Ideological demands? I guess Luskin is referring to the ideology of requiring facts and experimental evidence. Does he really think that bringing up false criticisms of a highly substantiated theory is going to help with students views of “scientific inquiry?”

Reviewer Stephen Meyer observes that:

"Science education that does not encourage students to evaluate competing scientific arguments is not teaching students about the way science actually operates"

The competing theories implied by Meyer is intelligent design, However, I think Meyer is a little confused here. Competing theories need to have evidence in order to be considered. Intelligent design does not have any.

I really do think that critical analysis is very important for today’s students.  I just don’t think trying to criticize a legitimate theory with pseudoscience is the best way to go about teaching critical thinking   Why not teach critical thinking skills by addressing some of the pseudoscience in society today?  It is not like we would be clamoring for subjects. Homeopathy, astrology, numerology, and creationism would all be valid and easy.  The only reason to pick evolution as the area for teaching critical thinking is due to ulterior motives.