Category Archives: Science

Have a presidential science debate

evolution.jpgScience and technology are at the heart of many of America’s challenges and controversies, from climate change and alternative energy to stem-cell research and teaching evolution.

Too often, though, science is pushed to the sidelines of presidential debates to make way for presumably weightier topics, such as whether Hillary Clinton is really likable or whether Dennis Kucinich saw a UFO.

My column today supports a bipartisan grassroots effort to hold a science and technology debate sometime during the election season.

I think it’s a great idea, and it’s fast gaining support. See the group’s Web site.

Do not pass the cloned roast

roastThe Food and Drug Administration has declared meat and milk from cloned animals and their offspring to be “as safe as food we eat every day,” in the words of Stephen Sundloff, FDA’s food safety chief. The FDA believes that more study and mandatory labeling are unnecessary, even though Congress has been working on legislation to keep clones out of the food chain. So whenever the voluntary sales moratorium ends, will consumers have to just trust the FDA and industry that the cloned food they won’t realize their eating is safe? One problem is the context: The phrase “FDA-approved” seems more like a warning than an assurance these days.

Kid dreams soar with space talk

Spacestation It’s great that some Wichita schoolkids will get a chance to chat live with orbiting astronauts, thanks to a deal reached between Exploration Place and NASA.
The live video downlink from the International Space Station — the first ever for Kansas — will take place in February or March and let Anderson Elementary fifth-graders ask astronauts and cosmonauts questions for 20 minutes or so.

The event is a natural for Exploration Place to host, with its mission to fire children’s imaginations and inspire them to reach for the stars.

Kudos to Exploration Place for landing the NASA event. Hope it’s the first of many.

Texas the next battle in evolution wars

Evolutiondarwin Texas’ longtime science curriculum adviser, Christine Comer, was ousted by Texas Board of Education officials last month for forwarding an e-mail about a talk by a professor who debunks “intelligent design” and creationism. The board members accused Comer of not being “neutral” in the evolution debate.
Why should she be?
As the New York Times argued, “Surely the agency should not remain neutral on the central struggle between science and religion in the public schools. It should take a stand in favor of evolution as a central theory in modern biology. Texas’ own education standards require the teaching of evolution.”
Those standards are up for review next year, and intelligent design proponents on the board are expected to fight to insert ID views into the curriculum, another likely reason Comer was forced out.
Posted by Randy Scholfield

Science is based on faith, too

EvolutionPaul Davies, a physicist and professor at Arizona State University, isn’t anti-evolution or pro-intelligent design. But he argues in a New York Times commentary that both religion and science are based on faith. In science’s case, he says, it “proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way” — an assumption he says that so far “has been justified.” For example, he argues that physicists “have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin.” He contends that both “monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence,” and that “until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.”
Posted by Phillip Brownlee

NOVA program a crash course in evolutionary science

Novaintelldesign Kansans still convinced that public schools should teach creationism or the intelligent design theory should watch a two-hour NOVA program on KPTS, Channel 8, next Tuesday at 7 p.m.
The program is about the 2005 landmark case in which the Dover, Pa., school board was sued for ordering its science teachers to read a statement suggesting that intelligent design — an idea that life is too complicated to have evolved naturally — was a scientific alternative to evolution. District Judge John Jones ruled that intelligent design was a religious-based theory and couldn’t be taught in the science classroom.
NOVA producer Paula S. Apsell said that the case is instructive in that it “provided a crash course in modern evolutionary science” and “explored the very nature of science — how science is defined.”
Click here to watch a YouTube trailer of the program.
Meanwhile, the Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design, contends that intelligent design is not religious based and that a teacher guidebook about the show distributed by NOVA violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Posted by Phillip Brownlee

Were scientists tricked into appearing in ID film?

Several scientists are claiming that they were misled about a new intelligent design film, the New York Times reported. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says that he was asked to be interviewed for a film about the intersection of faith and science to be titled "Crossroads." Instead, the film, which will be released next year, is now titled, "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," and is about academia’s alleged intolerance and suppression of those who see evidence of a supernatural intelligence in biological processes. "At no time was I given the slightest clue that these people were a creationist front," Dawkins said.
Eugenie C. Scott, a physical anthropologist who heads the National Center for Science Education, said she is willing to appear in films in which people’s views are different from hers. "I just expect people to be honest with me, and they weren’t," she said.
But a producer of the film denied that there was any deception about what the film was about, and said the film’s name change was just a marketing decision.
If the filmmakers were a bit deceptive, is that OK, given that Michael Moore does that? Or would that go against the religious views the film promotes?
Posted by Phillip Brownlee

Appropriately, documentary focuses on faith, not science

A low point in our state’s education history is the subject of a new, re-edited documentary, “Kansas vs. Darwin,” that is debuting today at the Kansas International Film Festival in Overland Park. The film centers on the evolution hearings that the State Board of Education held in May 2005 and includes interviews with “the characters who captured the world’s attention.”
The filmmakers originally released the documentary a little more than a year ago, including discussions about cells and molecular biology that were over the heads of most viewers, the Lawrence Journal-World reported. So they re-edited the film, focusing more on the politics of faith and less on science.
That seems appropriate, as that’s what state board members did, too.
Posted by Phillip Brownlee

Mountain lions? Why not in Kansas?

Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, is the latest Kansan to claim he has proof of a mountain lion in Kansas. Critics were quick to point out flaws in Klataske’s evidence (a fuzzy photograph, plaster casts that could have been taken anywhere). But Klataske, a trained biologist, insists he has the goods.
Perhaps. It stands to reason that cougars are coming through Kansas, at least periodically, since there has been recorded proof of the big cats in all four states surrounding Kansas.
The larger question is: Are they staying here and reproducing?
Despite the many anecdotal sightings, there’s still no real proof that cougars have made Kansas home. But just knowing they could be here is exciting and makes our state seem a bit wilder.
Posted by Randy Scholfield

Another milestone in stating the obvious

"Men want hot women, study confirms," reports CNN.
Another breakthrough for science!
Posted by Randy Scholfield

Evolution even more complex, chaotic than thought

The old evolution cartoons about the ascent of man were never very accurate, but new research indicates that they are even more off than scientists have thought. Two forms of early humans depicted in those cartoons appear to have lived at the same time, according to new research on two African fossils. What this means is that human evolution is a “chaotic kind of looking evolutionary tree rather than this heroic march that you see with the cartoons of an early ancestor evolving into some intermediate and eventually unto us,” study co-author Fred Spoor, a professor of evolutionary anatomy at the University College in London, told Associated Press. It also means, Spoor said, that there is some still-undiscovered common ancestor that probably lived 2 million to 3 million years ago, a time that has not left much fossil record.
Posted by Phillip Brownlee

Despite voter wishes, stem cell research stalled in Missouri

Even though voters approved a constitutional amendment last year protecting embryonic stem-cell research, expanded research hasn’t happened yet in the state, the New York Times reported. That’s in large part because some state lawmakers in Missouri are still fighting the issue, introducing new bills to try to block certain types of research. As a result, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research has suspended its plans for a $300 million expansion, citing the "persistent negative political climate," the Times reported. A Harvard University professor who put off his plan to move to Missouri to work at Stowers called what has happened since the amendment passed "a big disappointment."
Posted by Phillip Brownlee

Texas as stupid as Kansas?

"Looks like Texas is on the move to be as stupid as Kansas," a HoustonPress blog said last week about Texas Gov. Rick Perry (in photo) appointing conservative ideologue Don McLeroy to head the State Board of Education. "The expectation," the blog said, "is that McLeroy will lead the way into creationism in the upcoming board debate over state textbooks."
Posted by Phillip Brownlee

More rounds ahead in stem cell standoff

Even before Congress changed hands, a gap existed between it and President Bush on federal funding for new embryonic stem-cell research. His second veto of a bill to bolster such research brought talk of an override attempt or yet another legislative do-over. Bush’s executive order urging on those who do “ethically responsible” research won’t satisfy the many who see embryonic stem cells as the pluripotent key to curing major illnesses. Both sides are just working the process as they can. But does the repeatedly stated will of the legislative branch mean nothing to Bush?
Posted by Rhonda Holman

Stem cell roadblock and a potential bypass

President Bush should heed the will of Congress and the majority of the public (64 percent, according to a new Gallup poll) and sign a bill loosening restrictions on federally funded stem cell research. But Bush vowed Thursday that he would veto the bill, just as he did a similar bill last July. That’s too bad, especially given that the stem cells would come from unused frozen embryos that fertility clinics plan to discard.
But there was also promising research published Thursday. Scientists were able to make cells equivalent to embryonic stem cells using the skin cells of mice. If the process can be replicated in humans, it could avoid the ethical objections to embryonic stem cells.
Posted by Phillip Brownlee

Do not go to creationist museum for science

The new $27 million Creation Museum near Cincinnati has lots of glitz and high-tech animatronic displays.
But is it science? No.
The evangelical group that built the museum says science backs its claims that biblical stories such as Adam and Eve and Noah’s ark are literally true and that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Dinosaurs are shown co-existing with humans.
The founders have every right to create a museum extolling their beliefs, which are shared by many Americans. What they don’t have a right to do is claim that this has anything to do with science.
Posted by Randy Scholfield

Does Darwin back conservative political science?

The evolution question from the GOP presidential debate (in which Sen. Sam Brownback and two other candidates raised their hands when asked if anyone doesn’t believe in evolution) is still generating commentary. Tom Teepen had a column in Wednesday’s Opinion pages saying that it was embarrassing even to have to ask the question. Kathleen Parker had a column Sunday arguing that the issue is more complex than a simple yes/no question.
That could be true, as the evolution debate is extending beyond biology into political science. Some conservative intellectuals are arguing that “Darwin’s scientific theories about the evolution of species can be applied to today’s patterns of human behavior, and that natural selection can provide support for many bedrock conservative ideas, like traditional social roles for men and women, free-market capitalism and governmental checks and balances,” the New York Times reported.
Then again, Parker joked, the presidential debate presented Darwinists with a contradiction: “If Darwin was right, how did these knuckle-draggers make it to the presidential campaign podium?”
Posted by Phillip Brownlee

Sebelius defends stem cell promise

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback’s high-profile opposition to embryonic stem-cell research isn’t going unchallenged by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (in photo), who last week stepped up to defend this promising field. In a letter to the U.S. Senate signed by eight other governors, Sebelius called President Bush “out of touch” on the issue and urged senators to pass a bill authorizing federal funding (the Senate did so, but Bush has vowed a veto). “Every day, thousands of families in our states struggle as a loved one suffers from juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injuries or other conditions that might be cured if restrictions are lifted,” Sebelius said in the letter. “For over five years, these families have been forced to wait as the Bush policy has obstructed this vital research.”
Posted by Randy Scholfield

Nature or nurture?

We knew about identical twins, where a fertilized egg divides to form two embryos with the same genetic makeup, and fraternal twins, where two eggs are fertilized by two different sperm, resulting in twins no more alike than any other siblings. Now researchers have found a third type that they are calling semi-identical, in which two sperm cells fertilized one egg cell. The resulting twins were one with typically masculine genitalia and the other with sexually ambiguous genitalia.
This discovery, along with the Vanishing Twin Syndrome, in which an embryo can be absorbed by its twin — and take on some of its twin’s genetic characteristics — raises questions about the nature or nurture of homosexuality. Is it really a “lifestyle choice” when it can be the result of how an egg cell develops?
Posted by Patrice Hein

Pass the bananas

The Web site Borowitzreport.com lampooned the latest science standards vote this way: “The Kansas State Board of Education voted to teach evolution in public schools, with the six human members of the board outvoting the four monkeys.”
Meanwhile, a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial took approving note of the “intelligent move” in Kansas schools’ “continuing passion play” and warned that “unless moderate Kansans keep hold of the democratic process, it can happen again. All states, all voters: Take note.”
And columnist John Young wrote that “opportunists seized on low-glamour elected policymaking roles that turned out to have a tremendous impact on the state. Indeed, they made Kansas a running joke.” His solution against such takeovers: “It takes people stepping forward as candidates, getting more involved in the political dialogue, and voting.”
Posted by Rhonda Holman

Crowson has the evolution blues

Check out the slide show of some of Richard Crowson’s editorial cartoons over the years about the Kansas evolution debate — and his original song “Evolution Blues.”
Posted by Phillip Brownlee

Unwelcome mat for mad scientists

State lawmakers have a bad habit of passing tough-on-crime laws without regard to the impact on the prison population. At least this one should have no such effect, unless there’s some unknown cluster of Dr. Frankensteins operating in the state: State Rep. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, and 38 other House members want to make it a felony to create animal-human hybrids in Kansas.
Posted by Rhonda Holman

Of gay sheep, virgin dragons

A couple of news stories this week that some will probably claim are part of the liberal media’s agenda to promote homosexuality and undermine fatherhood: An Oregon scientist has been taking undeserved heat for his research on why about 8 percent of rams seek sex exclusively with other rams instead of ewes, the New York Times reported. And a Komodo dragon in England had five babies (see photo) even though a male has never been near her — the first documented virgin birth by a Komodo. What’s next, a story about dogs and cats living together?
Posted by Phillip Brownlee

Earth calling Stephen Hawking

Is famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking lost in space? He’s once again calling for human colonization of the universe as the only way to prevent extinction of our species.
He says it will take the development of “Star Trek”-like warp drives to get us there.
Right. And friendly Vulcans would help, too.
I’m all for space exploration. But his obsession with escaping Earth seems a bit out there and misdirected. Instead, why not use some of his brainpower to solve the more immediate problem of how to keep humans from destroying our home, the Earth, and ourselves through nuclear war or global warming?
True, space happens. A team of scientists claimed recently that the dinosaurs became extinct from the impact of a single huge asteroid 65 million years ago. (Ben Affleck apparently wasn’t there to divert it.)
But deep space travel and inhabitation are far into the future. The technology doesn’t exist, except on “Star Trek.” And I, for one, like my chances right here on Earth. It’s a beautiful place.
Beam me down, Stephen.
Posted by Randy Scholfield

U.S. arsenal now includes a heat ray

America’s problems in Iraq probably aren’t due to low-tech weapons, but the U.S. military has a new high-tech one to use there.
Wired News reports on the Air Force’s Active Denial System, a nonlethal weapon that uses something akin to microwaves to heat the surface of the skin and prompt what the service euphemistically calls “prompt and highly motivated escape behavior.” In other words, it hurts so much, so quickly, that targets run away.
According to Wired News, the system has been extensively tested on volunteers and is supposed to produce no lasting ill effects — if used properly.
And yes, it has been certified for use in Iraq. It’ll be interesting to see how well that goes over.
Posted by Dave Knadler