Creationists: The film director who couldn’t shoot straight

September 21, 2007

Hilarity continues to roll out of Waco. The creationists can’t even shoot film straight.

Tim Woods, a reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald tells the story well:

Baylor University’s recent controversy regarding a professor’s intelligent design-related Web site took a dramatic turn Thursday when a film crew went to President John Lilley’s office, hoping to speak to him about what they deem academic suppression.

But Lilley was out of town.

Mark Mathis, associate producer for the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, and a film crew went to Lilley’s office about 10 a.m. When they learned Lilley was in Houston and unavailable Thursday, Mathis asked to speak with Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman.

Not satisfied with the hoax e-mail attributed to President Lilly by Bill Dembski, the ID version of the Keystone Kops tried to ambush Lilly. I don’t endorse ambush journalism even when the journalists are honest and competent, but Mathis’s dishonesty and lack of manners in dealing with other stars of his films suggest Mathis is the last person on Earth who should be doing such stuff.

Mathis said Stein and the film’s producers believe Baylor’s removal of distinguished engineering professor Robert Marks’ Web site devoted to evolutionary informatics — a concept Marks’ collaborator, William Dembski, termed “friendly” to intelligent design — from its server is an example of academic suppression.

While Baylor officials have said the site was removed for procedural reasons, namely the absence of a disclaimer separating the university from involvement in Marks’ research, Mathis believes it was taken down because of its content.

“To us, it seems pretty obvious what’s going on with Professor Marks’ Web site. . . . To us, that’s academic persecution and suppression,” Mathis said. “What is the problem with tenured, distinguished university professors pursuing a scientific idea? What’s wrong with that? It’s especially interesting in the case of Baylor, in that this is happening at a Christian university.”

Baylor provost Randall O’Brien, who was in New York on Thursday, said Marks is free to conduct evolutionary informatics research and, like Fogleman, denied the site was removed because of its content.

“What we say is you have the freedom to formulate your own views and so forth, just make sure that you issue a disclaimer that your particular view does not necessarily express the view of Baylor University,” O’Brien said. “We fully endorse the right and responsibilities of academic freedom.”

While Mathis was at Baylor, he could have ambushed Prof. Marks, and challenged Marks to tell him what Marks’ research hopes to find, and asked Marks to show the lab for the world.

It would have been the first time that anyone has ever caught on film that elusive animal, the intelligence design research facility.

If the lab exists, it would be the first time ever caught on film. If it exists.

Skirmishes before the war? Creationist assault on Texas

September 21, 2007

Intelligent design advocates’ chief claim holds that where a pattern may be discerned, there is someone with intelligence scheming away.

That explains a recent spattering of activities in Texas that otherwise are just blots of minor, irritating news. It points to animus against science in top religious and political circles in Texas — if, of course, there is anything at all to intelligent design’s chief premise.

Scientists and citizens for good government, and parents concerned about good education, should note these recent actions:

First, ID advocates tried to establish a stealth toehold at Baylor University. The Waco Tribune explained the otherwise odd events surrounding Bill Dembski’s latest foray into Baylor — he got himself designated as a “post-doc” student for an engineer’s project, and a website featuring a new sciency term, “informatics,” quickly appeared. School administrators were not satisfied with the transparency and legitimacy of funding for the project, and pulled the plug on it, producing wails of “oppression” from the ID harpy chorus.

Dembski is a professor at the Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Had he been collaborating with Robert Marks at Baylor, one would think that collaboration from his professorial position would carry more clout, attract more funding, and generally make a lot more sense than having the multiple-degreed Dembski do post-doc work in engineering, a field he’s not yet got a degree in. Apart from the sheer humor of Dembski pursuing one more degree that is not biology in order to try to get the credentials to assault biology, the sheer stupidity of the affair has put scientists off-guard, satisfied that Baylor’s integrity watchdogs have protected science adquately. I’m not so sure.

Second, without much fanfare outside extreme fundamentalist circles, the Institute for Creation Research moved most of its operation from California to Dallas. The stated reasons include proximity to DFW Airport, which makes sense for a corporation like J. C. Penney or Exxon-Mobil, but doesn’t really make a lot of sense for a “school” that has fought to get the right to grant graduate degrees in California.

Third, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s appointment of a stiff-necked creationist to be the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education produced concern among educators and scientists, especially remembering Chairman Don McLeroy’s positions on creationism and evolution in the last biology textbook approval round, in 2003 (not to mention his anti-disease prevention stance on health books in 2004). Concern was defused by a Dallas Morning News article in which McLeroy and other creationists on the board said they would not work to put intelligent design into the curriculum.

But reports from meetings of the SBOE in the past week make it clear that the creationist agenda is still very much alive, with McLeroy working with other creationists to break standard procedures for curriculum review, and to stack panels reviewing science standards with people who will work against evolution, cosmology, environmental protection and wildlife management, and disease prevention. Politics of Christian dominionists appear to dominate the discussions at the education board, rather than the rigor of the curriculum or how best to teach students so they can ace federally-mandated state tests. Pedagogy takes a back seat to religious politics.

Individually, each of these events is just another in a long string of nuttiness.  The moving of ICR to Texas, however, means that ICR representatives would have the Texas citizen’s right to testify at textbook hearings.  These may be unconnected events of wingnuttery, or they may be initial moves to be in the right place to gut science textbooks in the next round of Texas textbook approvals.

It is best not to assume intelligent design where mere incompetence also provides an sufficient answer.

But watch what happens next.

West Nile 2007: DDT not needed

September 21, 2007

Kern County, California, is ground zero for West Nile virus trouble in 2007. It’s a still-partly rural area, with many farms, around Bakersfield. California so far this year has more than 200 cases of human infection from West Nile reported, and 115 of those cases are in Kern County. Eight people died from the infections, all of them elderly.

So, were DDT the answer to West Nile virus problems, Kern County would be the first place from which we would expect to hear a plea for DDT.

Not so.

Kern County officials hope they’ve turned a corner. There were only eight new cases reported last week, and officials think that their spraying program may have contributed a lot.

Yes, you read that correctly: The spraying program in Kern County is credited with reducing West Nile virus infections in humans.

Occasional readers of this outlet might well ask: What are they spraying with, if not DDT?

Despite the Snake-oil Salesmen™ claim that the U.S. needs to poison itself with DDT in order to fight West Nile, officials in public health use other substances to fight mosquitoes directly, when there is an outbreak of West Nile virus-related disease in humans, or sometimes just in birds.

[Notice: Original reporting ahead]

The Kern County Department of Public Health Services actively fights West Nile, with public education, help to medical care professionals, and information to decision makers on what steps need to be taken. People at the agency were anxious to talk about their work against West Nile.

What do they use to spray for mosquitoes? Not DDT.

I checked with two other mosquito abatement groups, including Dallas County’s.  They were anxious to talk about their work, though not for attribution without approval of their PR managers, who have so far not returned calls (public relations is impossible when you don’t relate to the public, guys).

Those who do the spraying emphasize that spraying is rather a last resort, and done only after significant research shows it is necessary. Spraying kills more than the mosquitoes, including a lot of creatures that would normally eat the mosquitoes and keep them in check.  So spraying is done only when the mosquitoes seem to have an unnatural tipping of the balance in their favor.

Public health departments set traps for mosquitoes.  These traps are checked regularly, and the mosquitoes are sorted by species.  This is vitally important, because West Nile virus is carried only by certain species of mosquito, and different species require different abatement plans, and different insecticides.

Once sorted by species, the mosquitoes are sampled to see which are carrying pathogens, if any.  In addition, most public health agencies also monitor birds, by reports of bird carcasses (almost always a sign of disease or poisoning), and by captive populations of chickens, whose blood is sampled to see whether viruses are present.

After the species are identified, the viruses are identified, and it is determined that there is virus activity, a decision is made on whether to spray.

For West Nile, the chief vector is a species of Culex.  Culex mosquitoes are generally controlled by larvacides, not spraying for adults.  If spraying for adults is determined necessary, most health departments are using synthetic pyrethroids, synthetic versions of insecticides plants manufacture.  While they are not as environmentally friendly as natural pyrethrins, they are much less dangerous than DDT.

The sprayers I spoke with also made this point:  The old model of DDT spraying of entire neighborhoods is outdated.  “It is not a good use of the product,” as one gently put it.

For West Nile virus control, here’s what you need to tell Henry I. Miller, up in the ivory towers at the Hoover Institute promoting voodoo science:

1.  No one thinks West Nile virus is out of control (but it’s a problem).

2.  Health official thinks current, non-DDT methods of mosquito control are adequate to control for West Nile virus.

3.  Even when spraying is required, DDT is the wrong stuff to use Culex is generally controlled with a larvacide, and DDT spraying would be much less effective, and much more destructive.

I asked the abatement people if they were concerned about killing birds with spraying, or killing other things that eat mosquitoes.  Basically, they said it’s not their job, but the chemicals they use are much gentler on birds and other mosquito predators than DDT is.  One fellow said about collateral bird deaths:  “I have bigger finch to fry.”

Historic maps: Florida and the Gulf of Mexico

September 21, 2007

Go to the University of Florida Smathers Library site, and admire the beauty of these old maps of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. (While I think fair use would cover it, I’m holding back on posting an image until copyright permission comes through — you’re licensed to use them in the classroom, however.)

What else would you expect from a library named after Sen. George A. Smathers, who was part of that legendary 1950 Senate campaign in Florida?

The maps featured on the first page include Spanish, Dutch, English, Belgian, French and Italian maps of the early explorers, suitable certainly for Texas history courses, and also for Florida, Louisiana and U.S. history units on European exploration.

This site is quite Florida-centric, but it’s links also provide some interesting and valuable resources, such as the link to satellite imagery of the areas, like the NOAA map, below.

NOAA map of ocean water temperatures around Florida, satellite image

Tip of the old scrub brush to A Cracker Boy Looks at Florida

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