The day I met a creationist at the science conference

1024px-Dakota_Fm_Dinosaur_Ridge

The last place you expect to meet a creationist is at the annual American Geophysical Union conference. I don't know how I got so lucky.

Yesterday morning, I wandered through the posters presented at the event, with a thought to translating their scientific jargon into something interesting to read. Since my background is biological, I thought that discipline would be the obvious place to start—in particular, something about microbes doing interesting things under the surface of the Earth.

A title caught my eye. It was one of the first posters in the aisle, so prominent to the casual passerby:

A COMPARISON OF δ13C & pMC VALUES for TEN CRETACEOUS-JURASSIC DINOSAUR BONES from TEXAS to ALASKA USA, CHINA AND EUROPE WITH THAT OF COAL AND DIAMONDS PRESENTED IN THE 2003 AGU MEETING

Dinosaur bones and diamonds! My brain, attracted to both old and shiny objects, sent me in closer to investigate. As I was trying to interpret the densely-packed board of letters, numbers, and figures printed in incredibly tiny print, I was approached by a slight, elderly man in glasses. A name badge declaring him to be Hugh Miller, the first author on the poster.

He asked if I had any questions. I asked if he could just give me a quick summary of the work. He talked about performing mass spectrometry on samples of various dinosaur bones that produced age estimates ranging from 15,000 to 50,000 years. My spidey-sense tingled. I peered over his shoulder, searching for bullet points to figure out what was going on here.

That's when I read it: "humans, neanderthals, and dinosaurs existed together."

The poster was challenging radiocarbon dating using Carbon-14 (C-14) isotopes. It suggested that their data, comparing coal, diamond, wood, and dinosaur bones, were sufficient to throw all of geology into question. Namely, that based on their data, the age estimate of the dinosaurs was off by some 2000x.

Moreover, humanity must be increasingly concerned about asteroid strikes to the Earth, because that age estimate error would influence our estimate of the size of the whole universe (since we look at the size of the universe through the lens of time), which would mean that everything in our solar system is more densely packed. Hence, we are more likely to be hit by asteroids because they are so much closer to us than thought.

This makes about as much sense as the Indiana Jones movie with ancient alien archaeologists.

credit: Paramount Pictures

credit: Paramount Pictures

I don't know if Hugh saw the quizzical look in my eyes, but when he was interrupted by someone asking for something, I quickly backed away.

Now, here's the thing about Carbon-14 dating. This isotope has a very short half-life (the time necessary for the element to reduce in mass by half) of only 5730 years. Since it decays so quickly, it is useless for dating objects more than about 40-50,000 years old. The background levels of C-14 radiation in the laboratory have to be compensated for.

According to the NCSE website:

"This radiation cannot be totally eliminated from the laboratory, so one could probably get a "radiocarbon" date of fifty thousand years from a pure carbon-free piece of tin."

And, this is pretty much what the poster presented.

When looking at fossils preserved in sedimentary rock, the fossil itself can be dated, but often a technique called "bracketing" is used where the igneous rock on either side of the fossil is dated with radioactive isotopes that have half-lives on the order of millions of years. This give scientists a range of time in which the animal could have lived. The poster authors, Hugh included, were basing their attack on one technique in the geological toolkit, and disregarding all other evidence that would have undermined their conclusions.

How did this abstract get past the selection process? I have no idea, but I hope that people at the conference were able to see that it was not science. It was an example of belief masquerading as scientific inquiry.

Creationist "just can't" with museum's evolution propaganda

This lady just can't with the Chicago Field Museum's evolution propaganda. She rambles on about it for over 30 minutes in this video—and it's as hilarious as you might imagine.

This comes via the Bilerico Project, who had this to say:

Anyone who follows the infuriating "debates" about topics like climate change, vaccinations, and the choice myth of sexual orientation -- where fear, misinformation, urban legends, and pseudoscience are presented alongside scientific consensus as though both "sides" are equally legitimate -- knows that we've got a serious idiocy problem here in America.... (She can't pronounce "eukaryotes," but she knows her facts, you guys!)

Read their full post on the video here.

Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham of the Creation Museum

Museum

On February 4, Bill Nye "The Science Guy" will debate Ken Ham, Creation Museum founder and Answers In Genesis president/CEO, at The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky just across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. The event is titled "Is creation a viable model of origins?" This is gonna be good. Tickets are $25 from the Creation Museum. I hope the museum makes a full video available but I bet that will depend on how it plays out. Hopefully an audience member will record and post the whole thing online. "Bill Nye to Visit Creation Museum for Debate" (ABC News, thanks, Bob Pescovitz!)

(image: CC-licensed photo of Creation Museum exhibit by Anthony5429)

The creationists' last stand

In Texas, the same old fight: conservative Christians desperately trying to excise evolution, reproductive health and much science in general from school textbooks. [Dallas Observer via Metafilter]

Young pro-science/anti-Creationism activist wins TroubleMaker award

Zack Kopplin, the 19-year-old anti-Creationism/pro-science activist I wrote about last month, has won the TroubleMaker Award, which comes with a $10,000 prize.

Zack’s bold campaign to repeal the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) has made waves in state politics and in public education. Kopplin has gathered the support of 78 Nobel Laureate scientists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the New Orleans City Council, and other major organizations. His petition to repeal the law has 74,000 supporters across the US. Working with Louisiana State Senator Karen Carter Peterson, Zack has fought for two bills to repeal the LSEA. He has spoken out before the Louisiana legislature and State Board of Education, debated creationist politicians, held rallies, and had been covered in hundreds of interviews in national and international media. Kopplin is preparing to fight for a third repeal bill.

Zack plans to use the $10,000 awarded to him to increase the impact and reach of his campaign. The funds will greatly aid Zack’s most recent venture to call for accountability on the issue of millions of dollars in school vouchers being spent to fund schools across the US that teach creationist ideas. He also plans to use this money to help build the Second Giant Leap movement, which calls for a permanent end to science denial legislation and for a trillion dollars of new science funding in the next decade.

Kopplin said, “We need a Second Giant Leap for Mankind and we need a student movement of troublemakers and truth-tellers who are willing to stand up and speak out to make this a reality.”

Troublemaker Award (via IO9)

Getting to know "Mitochondrial Eve"

By studying the way it has mutated and changed over time, scientists can trace human mitochondrial DNA — the DNA that is passed from mother to daughter — back to a single woman. Basically, everybody alive is descended from her. But that's not the same thing as saying that Mitochondrial Eve was once the only woman alive. In a very nice piece — with helpful illustrations — the Christian (but evolution-accepting) scientists at BioLogos explain what Mitochondrial Eve really means and why she can't be used as an argument for creationism. Whether or not you've ever found yourself arguing this point with a family member or friend, the piece is really useful for deepening your understanding of a pop-science concept that's often thrown around without a clear explanation behind it.

Missouri lawmaker wants to redefine science to include "faith-based philosophy," force creationism into science class

A bill introduced in the Missouri legislature by Rick Brattin is a genuinely bizarre attempt to cram religion into the state's science curriculum. In what must have seen to Mr Brattin as a very clever move, the bill redefines what science is to include religion ("'Scientific theory,' an inferred explanation of incompletely understood phenomena about the physical universe based on limited knowledge, whose components are data, logic, and faith-based philosophy.") (emphasis mine). The bill just gets weirder from there.

If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a course of study, biological evolution and biological intelligent design shall be taught. Other scientific theory or theories of origin may be taught. If biological intelligent design is taught, any proposed identity of the intelligence responsible for earth's biology shall be verifiable by present-day observation or experimentation and teachers shall not question, survey, or otherwise influence student belief in a nonverifiable identity within a science course.

In other words, equal time for the leading scientific idea and intelligent design, but never mention who the designer might be. And not just equal time, but equal pages; the bill literally mandates that "course textbooks contain approximately an equal number of pages of relevant material teaching each viewpoint." Brattin is at least aware no textbooks actually have anything on "biological intelligent design," so he wants the state to identify "nine individuals who are knowledgeable of science and intelligent design" to create supplementary materials for use until the textbook publishers get in line.

It's just a bill, not a law, but as John Timmer points out, bills that are very nearly this stupid have already passed in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Missouri bill redefines science, gives equal time to Intelligent Design [John Timmer/Ars Technica]

(Thanks, Eric!)

Meet Zack Kopplin, the 19-year-old who started winning battles against teaching creationism in Louisiana public schools when he was 14

IO9 profiles Zack Kopplin, a 19-year-old, five-year veteran of the fight against teaching creationism in Louisiana's science classes. Kopplin was a student when the a law came into effect allowing teachers to bring creationist material to class, and he took up the cause, winning a battle that prevented the exclusion of evolution from Louisiana science classes altogether. Kopplin has been vilified by state legislators and creationists, but refuses to give up the fight. If I can raise a kid with this much sense, savvy, passion and ethical commitment, I'll consider my life to have been worthwhile:

He also has his eyes set on vouchers. After an Alternet story came out about a school in the Louisiana voucher program teaching that the Loch Ness Monster was real and disproved evolution, Kopplin looked deeper into the program and found that this wasn't just one school, but at least 19 other schools, too.

School vouchers, he argues, unconstitutionally fund the teaching of creationism because many of the schools in these programs are private fundamentalist religious schools who are teaching creationism.

"These schools have every right to teach whatever they want — no matter how much I disagree with it — as long as they are fully private," he says. "But when they take public money through vouchers, these schools need to be accountable to the public in the same way that public schools are and they must abide by the same rules." Kopplin is hoping for more transparency in these programs so the public can see what is being taught with taxpayers' money.

How 19-year-old activist Zack Kopplin is making life hell for Louisiana’s creationists [George Dvorsky/IO9]

New Orleans schools ban teaching Creationism, reject Texas Creationist "science" textbooks

The Orleans Parish Public School Board has rejected the Louisiana Science Education Act, which followed Texas's lead by putting Creationism into the state's schools. A Board decision prohibits the teaching of Creationism in science class, and forbids the use of Texas's revisionist, Creationist "science" textbooks.

The policy says: "No history textbook shall be approved which has been adjusted in accordance with the state of Texas revisionist guidelines nor shall any science textbook be approved which presents creationism or intelligent design as science or scientific theories."

It stresses the separation of science and religious teachings:

"No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach any aspect of religious faith as science or in a science class. No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach creationism or intelligent design in classes designated as science classes."

Orleans Parish School Board votes to ban creationism [Tania Dall/WWLTV] (Thanks, Patrick!)

TOM THE DANCING BUG: Obama Sparks Creationism Controversy With "Evolution" of His Gay Marriage Position

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