Monthly Archives: May 2008

Teaching science in faith schools

teaching classIt’s easy to think that the current attack on science in the USA is a peculiarly American phenomenon – that it doesn’t, or wouldn’t, occur here in New Zealand. After all, a poll (UMR Research Survey: Morality, Religion and Evolution) last year showed 75% of New Zealanders support evolution.

So one expects that we shouldn’t have the same problem teaching evolution in our schools as occurs in the USA. But what about the faith schools? The data in the UMR research Poll indicates that between 40 and 50% of New Zealand’s Christians actually reject evolutionary science. So how does this influence the teaching of evolution, and science in general, in New Zealand’s faith schools?

This issue has come up in Australia. Maralyn Parker, a journalist for the Sydney Daily Telegraph raises this issue in her blog article Teaching Science at Pacific Hills Christian School. This includes a letter to the NSW Board of Studies expressing concern at the way evolutionary science is taught in at least one Christian school. The letter arose from the depiction of a science lesson at this school in a documentary “In Good Faith” shown on SBS television on Tuesday May 19.

The writer, Chris Bonner, says in part:

‘In the video clip the teacher is referring to a chart “Origins – a spectrum of belief”. This spectrum includes:

Young Earth Creationist

Old earth Creationist

Theistic Evolutionist

Intelligent Design

And Atheistic Evolutionist

In the video clip the science teacher variously refers to evolution as “this view” and that we have “a whole range of positions” on where we come from. The “atheistic evolutionists” exist on the spectrum as just another belief. The teacher throws in Richard Dawkins as one of these types of “believers”.

“But”, the teacher goes on, “there is a whole range of other ways of considering the evidence”, going on to cite the bible, intelligent design and so on.

The teacher then throws to the students the idea that they can decide between these “beliefs”.

We want to “allow you to ask the right questions”, he says, to “allow you to think about what the world is showing you” and (more pointedly) “what God’s revelation through his scripture shows you, so that you can come to some clear understanding about your view”.

The viewer of this clip is left wondering what credence, in the classroom and in formal assessment, would be given to the views of students who do not take “God’s revelation” into account when developing their “clear understanding”.’

This sort of teaching is completely inappropriate for a science class. It presents an incorrect interpretation of evolutionary science and the scientific method in general. I can’t imagine that it conforms to the educational curriculum and it certainly denies students a proper preparation for further science education and a possible science-related career.

I wonder if this sort of teaching is occurring in New Zealand’s faith schools?

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See also:
I am a Christian who Believes in Theistic Evolution

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Let’s ban cluster bombs

Cluster bombs AVAAS.ORG are mobilising pressure on countries currently negotiating a cluster bomb ban

“Cluster munitions kill children and other civilians long after wars are over–and this week, we have a chance to ban them. 109 countries are in the final stages of negotiation on a cluster bomb ban — but some are trying to water down the treaty with loopholes, exceptions, and delays.

Our information is that the delegations obstructing a strong treaty in the last few days include the UK, France, Germany, Spain, South Africa, Canada, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Japan, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland, so messages to these leaders will be particularly valuable.

A worldwide outcry for a strong treaty is needed now. The treaty will be signed Thursday.”

The AVAAS.ORG website offers a simple mechanism enabling you to contribute your name to this worldwide outcry.

Improving performance of your brain


I have finally caught up with all the archived Brain Science Podcasts. The latest is an interview with Dr John Medina and dicusses his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.

Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and research consultant. His book takes recent advances is neuroscience and brain science and derives practical ways these findings can be used to improve our performance in everyday life. He presents his recommendations as a set of 12 “rules” which can be applied to our educational, work and home situations.

I recommend this podcast (download the mps file) to anyone interested in this fascinating subject. Alternatively Medina’s website is well worth a look. He has gone out of his way to apply these rules to the presentation of information on the website. Consequently it is highly visual and easy to follow.

Continue reading

Phoenix has landed!

Landing siteI have been keeping my eye on the countdown clock for the phoenix mars lander at the Phoenix lander website and was able to watch activity at the mission control centre on NASA TV.

It’s a pleasure to be able to witness the celebration of the control team as news of the successful landing (shortly before midday New Zealand time) was reported.

The photograph shows the 70 km long ellipse covering the probable landing site on the northern arctic plains.

I now look forward to hearing news of the successful deployment of the robot arm and analysis of soil and water/ice samples.

This is from the Phoenix Landing Events Schedule

Anticipated pace of Mars surface operations
— If operations proceed relatively smoothly, the first eight to 10 days after landing will be a “characterization phase” of checking out and understanding the performance of the spacecraft’s power and thermal systems, as well as the robotic arm and other instruments.
— At the end of the characterization phase (date tba), the first sample of surface soil will be delivered to the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer onboard Phoenix.
— Analysis of soil from the surface in both the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer and in the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer will likely take 10 to 15 days if all processes go well. After that, each additional sampling cycle will reach a deeper subsurface level, in increments of about two to three centimeters. At each different layer, collecting and analyzing samples is expected to take 10 to 15 days, barring operational difficulties.
— How soon the digging reaches the expected icy layer will depend on how far below the surface that layer lies. Estimates in advance of landing range from two to five centimeters. If the ice is at the deeper end of that range, the first analysis of an icy sample could be in July or later.

See also:
Images from Phoenix Lander

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Do you believe in God?

Apparently most people (54%) in the world don’t. That’s if you believe the results coming out of the online poll at

Yes, I know. Polls are inherently unreliable and on-line polls even more so.

Still the results are interesting. Partly because they are listed country by country. And the numbers voting are also given for each country.

When I voted the results for New Zealand showed 69% answering No. The No result for North America was 57% and, interestingly, for Vatican City 50%. Only 2 people from Vatican City had voted – but even so!

I’m sure the figures are going to fluctuate widely as groups organise to crash the poll. The results don’t mean much but I will check back from time to time.

See also:
Too much faith in our census

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Non religious in Australia and New Zealand
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Secular twins

secular trends Aus & NZOccasionally we get religious leaders here claiming that New Zealand is a “Christian nation.” Some even want to enshrine this claim in law and will organise demonstrations demanding this (see Destiny of Christian privilege?). These people blithely ignore the fact that only 50% of New Zealanders describe themselves as Christian, and 32% claim no religion at all (2006 Census).

Even the claim that the country is culturally or historically “Christian” purposely ignores the largely secular input into our history and culture.

However, the “Christian nation” demand does appeal to some people. It’s necessary to oppose it because the political consequences of such a demand is theocracy – with a loss of human rights and social gains since the enlightenment.

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Exploiting the vulnerable

I’ve come to realise that child abuse victims are victims for life. In fact, child abuse victims become more vulnerable as they age.

A lifetime of experiencing shame, low self-esteem, avoidance and other coping mechanisms can explain this increasing vulnerability with age. This can make older people even more vulnerable to exploitation. I think such people are especially vulnerable to exploitation by religious groups.

Continue reading

Good luck Phoenix!


The coming weekend is an important one in the history of the scientific exploration of Mars. All going well, on May 25 the lander from the Phoenix Mars Mission will land in the northern polar region.

Phoenix is a stationary laboratory designed to study the history of water and search for complex organic molecules. The arctic region has been chosen because there is evidence for large amounts of subsurface water-ice in the northern arctic plains. A robotic arm will dig through the top soil layer and bring both soil and water-ice to the lander platform for analysis.

Despite the absence of surface liquid water there is evidence that water may once have flowed on the Martian surface. Geologic features like gullies and channels could have been formed by surface erosion, or even the movement of subsurface water.

Liquid water is important because all known forms of life require it to survive. So the Phoenix Mars Mission represent an important step in investigating the possibility of life forms on Mars. This is still an open question. Initial investigations during the Viking Mission of the 1970s produced ambiguous results and this and subsequent missions were not capable of subsurface investigations.

We now know that life can exist in the most extreme conditions and it is possible that dormant microbial colonies may be present in the Martian arctic. It’s thought that the soil environment in these areas may have been favourable for life for brief periods every 100,000 years.

Pheonix is an appropriate name for this mission because it is reborn out of fire, like the mythological Phoenix bird. The mission uses many components of the two unsuccessful Mars missions MPL and MSP ’01.

So good luck Phoenix! A successful landing will produce some fascinating new findings.

See also:
Rover instrument to sniff out life on Mars
Phoenix Mars Mission
The Phoenix landing site
Phoenix Mars Lander Will Probe for Signs of Life
Here is a neat countdown clock for the Phoenix landing

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Driving the wedge into Christianity

Back in 1999 Phillip E. Johnson, the godfather of intelligent design (ID), declared a strategy of labeling evolutionary science, and therefore by implication all of science, as atheistic.

“The objective is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs evolution to the existence of God vs the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.'”

In essence this is the same strategy as that outlined in the Wedge Strategy document.

Darwin SteinID spokespeople have constantly pushed this argument. Recently their efforts have become more extreme. For example, the message in ‘that silly movie’ Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that “Darwinism” led directly to Nazism and the holocaust. And these spokespeople have become more open in widening their attacks from “Darwinism” to all of science.

Ben Stein declared during a recent TV interview that “science leads to killing people.” David Berlinski in The Scientific Embrace of Atheism also attacks science in a manner John Derbyshire shows to be ridiculous (see Getting It Wrong about Atheism and Science). Denys O’Leary has written in similar nasty way with her references to “Darwinist” thugs (see Expelled: “Denormalizing” the Darwin thugs and Expelled: “Denormalizing” the Darwin thugs 2 – PZ Myers and friends).

Anti-science message aimed at Christians

Of course, none of these are really attacks on atheism (few atheists would object to being associated with scientific knowledge). It is an attempt to convince fellow Christians that science is somehow harmful. Scientific knowledge shouldn’t be accepted by Christians – it should be seen as unreliable. And scientists themselves are somehow evil.

In effect these attacks undermine Christianity because Christianity divorced from scientific knowledge will retreat to superstitious beliefs and be discredited. These anti-science messages are aimed at driving a wedge between conservative, fundamentalist Christians and pro-science Christians. The latter will be associated with atheism and evil. And Chrsitianity itself then becomes identified with the conservative, fundamentalist groups.

This tactic is obvious in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed which covers up the fact that many Christians accept evolutionary science and that many evolutionary scientists are in fact Christians. (See, for example, Why Ken Miller isn’t in Expelled, Why Christian scientists Were Expelled from “Pro-Religion” Expelled! Film and Ken Miller: Expelled from Expelled for his religious views).

Concern about anti-science messages

Such hostile and malicious attacks have no place in scientific debate. In fact they only promote a dogmatism which is completely alien to scientific inquiry. So scientists are rightly concerned. This is indicated by the recent statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It says in part:

“For more than a decade, the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has been working to build a constructive bridge between scientific and religious communities through its Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion and other programs. There also have been many efforts by religious leaders to accomplish the same goal. For example, more than 11,000 clergy have signed an open letter supporting the view that faith and science should be seen as complementary, not competing. The leadership of the United Church of Christ recently sent out a pastoral letter expressing a similar position.

We were therefore especially disappointed to learn that the producers of an intelligent design propaganda movie called “Expelled” are inappropriately pitting science against religion. This production badly misrepresents the scientific community as intolerant of dissent, when, in fact, respectful disagreement and questioning based on physical evidence represent the core of the scientific process. AAAS further decries the profound dishonesty and lack of civility demonstrated by this effort. The movie includes interviews with scientists who report that they were deceived into appearing as part of such a production, and advance segments broadly depict those who accept evolution as racist and sympathetic to Nazis. Such generalized insults are untrue and grossly unfair to millions of scientists in the United States and worldwide who are working to cure disease, solve hunger, improve national security, and otherwise advance science to improve the quality of human life.”

See also:
Plagiarize? You’ll Get EXPELLED!
Roundtable Discussion with Mark Mathis
Science Talk Podcast: Expelled Explained
Ken Miller’s Evolution Resources
Framing in action in Expelled
Trouble ahead for science – Ken Miller’s review of Expelled.

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Expelled Bingo
Should Dawkins have been Expelled?
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auraSome people claim to see auras – halos of colour – around people. Other’s don’t believe them.

Many believers in auras attribute the to supernatural forces, “leaky Chakras” or “pure life force” emanating from living beings. Non-believers will sometimes ridicule these explanations and point to the complete absence of evidence for such “energy fields” or life forces.

I think these arguments are often dogmatic and actually unscientific. There may be no evidence of energy fields etc., but that does not mean that auras don’t exist, or that those who claim to see them are lying or deluded. It is dogmatic to deny a phenomenon just because we can’t explain it with current knowledge. We can’t make scientific progress with that attitude.

On the other hand the existence of a phenomenon without any current rational explanation is not evidence for the supernatural. These arguments are also detrimental to the advancement of knowledge because they rely on untestable explanations. Just imagine where we would be if we still thought that thunder and lightning was caused by the anger of gods!

Of course, things like auras can be investigated scientifically. Sandra and Mathew Blakeslee describe such investigations in their book The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better.

They relate how a women who genuinely sees auras was investigated and found to have emotion-colour synesthesia. Synesthesia is a condition where awareness in one sense produces a response in another sense because of overlapping mind maps. Numbers have colours. Tastes have shapes. Sounds have a visual effect. This women reported colours associated with people and their names – presumably because of her emotional reaction to individuals.

So, it could be that some people really do see auras and these could be a natural construction of parts of their brain.

Now, we couldn’t make that advancement in understanding by taking up a dogmatic position. By claiming that auras don’t exist because they don’t fit in with current knowledge. Or by claiming that they do exist but have a supernatural or paranormal explanation.

By the way, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own is well worth reading. It’s a fascinating and fast moving area of science.

See also:
Brain Podcast Interview with Sarah Blakeslee about The Body Has a Mind of Its Own.
Brain Science Podcast #21: Body Maps: Dr Ginger Campbell discusses The Body Has a Mind of Its Own.

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