Archive for the ‘The culture wars’ Category

Nice way of putting it

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

The Morning News has an interesting way of describing what we need to do to get our rates of teen pregnancy under control:

South Carolina spends $3.8 million on teen pregnancy prevention. Much of it has gone to programs focused only on abstinence. Though abstinence is part of the solution, it must be combined with reality-based sex education.

Emphasis mine.  Abstinence-only sex ed versus “reality-based” sex ed is a nice way of putting it.  It at least admits what our real problem is … abstinence-only sex ed isn’t actually sex ed at all.  It wastes resources without getting us much in return.

Crystal Gayle on toast!

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

A Spartanburg woman has made a piece of cheese toast that bears an uncanny resemblance to country music legend Crystal Gayle.

The likeness is amazing!

The likeness is amazing!

As the woman noted…

“I know there’s a lot of people who believe there’s some […] reason for it being there,” said Lowe, who lives on Lake Bowen. “I just don’t know, but I could never eat it.”

Yes, country music is rather popular here in South Carolina.  What other reason would there be for country music legends to start appearing on toast?

Okay, okay … so the woman actually thought the toast looked like some religious character.  But you can’t tell me that isn’t Crystal Gayle immortalized in cheese!

Chemists as creationists: A formula for disaster

Friday, February 20th, 2009

A colleague in the natural sciences department here at the college handed me a printed copy of an article recently, and asked me for my opinion “as a chemist” on it.  I took the article and, since it was about 2 minutes before my next class, said I’d look at it later.  Later came, and I was in for a bit of a shock.  The article in question was one from the “Institute for Creation Research”: Chemistry by Chance: A Formula for Non-Life by one Charles McCombs, Ph.D.

Dr. McCombs seems to be a retired organic chemist.  So, you would expect McCombs to have some chemical objections to evolution.  (As commenter wb points out below, he is really trying to critique abiogenesis – what happened before evolution started.)

Before we get started, I’d like to point out the format of the article.  It’s a list.  Like many creationists, McCombs spews out a bunch of soundbite-sized objections to the science in the hopes that something will stick.  Most of these objections are simply old creationist claims that have been debunked a hundred times over.  You can read about those – like [the stability of biomolecules] and [the “problem” of chirality] – over at the Index to Creationist Claims.  Let’s see what McCombs says that might be new.

In a watery environment, amino acids and nucleotides cannot combine to form the polymeric backbone required for proteins and DNA/RNA.

Never mind, of course, that living cells do this sort of thing, and they’re 70% water.

In the laboratory, the only way to cause a reaction to form a polymer is to have the chemical components activated and then placed in a reactive environment. The process must be completely water-free, since the activated compounds would react with water. How could proteins and DNA/RNA be formed in some primordial, watery soup if the natural components are unreactive and if the necessary activated components cannot exist in water?

The way we choose to make a chemical in a laboratory environment may be quite different from the way a chemical can be made in the natural environment. I may choose to make oxygen gas in my lab via decomposition of mercuric oxide, but that’s not how the algae in the pond across campus do it.

Since living cells can manage making peptides with water around, you might envision that there would be some mechanisms available for the formation of peptides in the presence of water.  One such mechanism is the salt-induced peptide formation (SIPF) reaction, which can link up amino acids in aqueous solution when sodium chloride, copper(II) ions, and sufficient heat are available.  It’s quite likely that these things were available before life came about.  Other possible pathways to peptide formation in aqueous solution involve sulfur, something else that was available on the ancient Earth.

McCombs later comes up with this argument, which I haven’t heard before.  I’ll quote it in full.

Every time one component reacts with a second component forming the polymer, the chemical reaction also forms water as a byproduct of the reaction. There is a rule of chemical reactions (based on Le Chatelier’s Principle) called the Law of Mass Action that says all reactions proceed in a direction from highest to lowest concentration. This means that any reaction that produces water cannot be performed in the presence of water. This Law of Mass Action provides a total hindrance to protein, DNA/RNA, and polysaccharide formation because even if the condensation took place, the water from a supposed primordial soup would immediately hydrolyze them. Thus, if they are formed according to evolutionary theory, the water would have to be removed from the products, which is impossible in a “watery” soup.

Never mind, for the moment, that reactions that can link up amino acids in water under conditions that may have been available on the ancient Earth have been demonstrated and studied.   Let’s look at his argument.

Perhaps McCombs means to confuse us by throwing around terms like “Le Chateleir’s Principle” and “The Law of Mass Action”.  Perhaps he merely condused himself, but did McCombs really say that “any reaction that produces water cannot be performed in the presence of water“?  That’ll be news to any freshman chemistry student who has ever titrated an aqueous solution of an acid with aqueous sodium hydroxide – a reaction that produces water in an aqueous solution.

HC2H3O2(aq) + OH(aq) –> H2O(l) + C2H3O2(aq)

The titration of vinegar with aqueous sodium hydroxide is a staple of introductory chemistry labs.

Maybe that quote of his is not what he really meant to say, but nowhere does Le Chateleir’s Principle say that it’s impossible to do a chemical reaction if one of the products is already present.

After recycling more discredited creationist claims (see the links at the beginning of this post for more on those), McCombs ends his screed by saying that

The synthesis of proteins and DNA/RNA in the laboratory requires the chemist to control the reaction conditions, to thoroughly understand the reactivity and selectivity of each component, and to carefully control the order of addition of the components as the chain is building in size.  The successful formation of proteins and DNA/RNA in some imaginary primordial soup would require the same level of control as in the laboratory, but that level of control is not possible without a specific chemical controller.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes that since humans might make a specific biomolecule in the lab with the purpose of making it quickly and at a high purity, that nature has to be doing the same thing.    McCombs has provided no evidence whatsoever that this assumption is valid.  If anything, the fossil record of organisms that no longer roam the Earth says the exact opposite!

I also recommend taking a look at this article: “A model for the role of short self-assembled peptides in the very early stages of the origin of life” by Ohad Carny and Ehud Gazit. Very interesting stuff.  As always, actual science is far more interesting than creationist screeching about what can’t be done because it violates cretionist (mis)understanding of science.

An outrage!

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Here’s a letter to the editor from a Pee Dee media outlet:

Now, I’m really sorry to say this, but the Koran really needs to be taught in our Pee Dee schools.

Our grades are starting to be lower and lower every grading period, especially in Hemingway, where three-quarters of the student body are failing.

So with Allah’s help, our students’ grades will rocket up to A’s and B’s.

Outrageous, right?  We should never allow this sort of thing to be crammed down our children’s throats in the public schools.  Our public schools are meant to educate kids, not indoctrinate them.

Okay, I admit it – I changed the text of the letter above just a little.  But how is the outrageous letter above any different from the actual letter that was published – the one that said:

Now, I’m really sorry to say this, but the Bible really needs to be taught in our Pee Dee schools.

Our grades are starting to be lower and lower every grading period, especially in Hemingway, where three-quarters of the student body are failing.

So with God’s help, our students’ grades will rocket up to A’s and B’s.


The most wonderful time of the year!

Friday, December 5th, 2008

You can’t get very far into December without hearing it.  No, I’m not talking about Mannheim Steamroller.  I’m talking about the opening shots of the WAR ON CHRISTMAS!

Alongside a Nativity scene at the Legislative Building in Olympia, Washington, a sign put up by an atheist organization celebrates the winter solstice. But it’s the rest of the sign that has some residents and Christian organizations calling atheists Scrooges for attacking the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth.

The sign says:

“At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail.”
“There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.”
“There is only our natural world.”
“Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Maybe I’m just showing my age here, but I think that sign would be much cooler if it quoted some XTC lyrics.  It’s pretty close to them already.

Edited to add:

I remember reading a book.  In that book there was a rather strongly-worded phrase: “Thou shalt not steal”. I can’t recall the name of the book right now, but whatever it’s name – someone should really get these folks a copy and tell them to read it.

An atheist sign criticizing Christianity that was erected alongside a Nativity scene was taken from the Legislative Building in Olympia, Washington, on Friday and later found in a ditch.

I’m reasonably sure that book doesn’t condone theft.

Brunswick Stew-pid

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Looks like our northern neighbor is affected by the same disease that Upstate SC has:

the Brunswick County school board began discussions on teaching creationism alongside evolution – something all four board members present showed a strong interest in. The talk began after Joel Fanti, a parent and graduate of the school system, told the board that he considered it a problem to teach evolution as a fact and that science teachers should include creationism in the curriculum, as well.The audience applauded.

… a case of The Stupid.  At this point, it seems that the state will squash this little Stupid outbreak.  The higher-ups in the NC school system recall the Dover trial.  This, after all, would be a more blatant attempt than the one in Dover to replace science with religion in the science classroom.  A lawsuit would almost certainly follow.

One more disturbing point:

Teachers have alternative assignments for students whose parents have objections about evolution, but students are still assessed on the topic in state tests

Lovely.  Parents can opt their kids out of biology, but teachers are still held responsible for students whose parents won’t allow them to learn?

Palin’ in comparison

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

I haven’t had a whole lot of time to blog lately, but I can’t resist laughing at the culture wars.  Yglesias links to this post from an “oasis of rational conservatives”, titled “THIS IS ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW”:



So … the Democratic nominee for President can ride a bike, while the Republican nominee for Vice President can stand in front of a motorcycle?

But this post really compares apples to oranges.  They should have McCain on a motorcycle (making sure to hide the scaffolding holding him up).  That, or find a picture of Joe Biden on a bike.

Grades and godliness

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

In an article whose title is bound to make Rev. BigDumbChimp annoyed, LiveScience notes a study that correlates religious attendance with educational outcomes:

Students in grades 7 to 12 who went to church weekly also had lower dropout rates and felt more a part of their schools.


Students who attend religious services weekly average a GPA .144 higher than those who never attend services, said Jennifer Glanville, a sociologist at the University of Iowa.

Now as a science guy, I’ve got to wonder if the increase in grades also applies to sciences where the prevailing doctrine taught in many churches directly opposes the coursework.

But the overall result doesn’t surprise me at all.  Growing up in a relatively small part of South Carolina, I found that church and church related organizations were essentially the only structured social activities available outside of school.  This appeared to surprise the head researcher:

“Surprisingly, the importance of religion to teens had very little impact on their educational outcomes,” Glanville said. “That suggests that the act of attending church — the structure and the social aspects associated with it — could be more important to educational outcomes than the actual religion.”

As someone who went to church pretty regularly as a kid, this is completely unsurprising to me.  Kids are at church to socialize – or these days, to blow each other away.  The religious talk probably matters a lot less to kids than pastors and youth directors would like to believe.  But without the socialization, kids may do poorer in the school setting.

I wonder how the kids of UUs do in school compared to kids of Southern Baptists.  That might tell us whether it’s the act of attending church or something in the doctrines that helps educational outcomes.

You can read the abstract of Glanville’s study here – or get the whole study if your school subscribes to the journal online.  My school doesn’t, and it’s not worth the 30-mile drive to and from the university for a non-chemistry article. 🙂

The day I see …

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

The day I see fans of Richard Dawkins blocking the doors to the science building of my college pushing copies of The God Delusion in the same manner as the Gideons push their bibles is the day I will start taking the “atheism is a religion” folks more seriously.

The funny thing is, I’d say exactly the same thing to the Dawkins fans as I would to the Gideons:  Sorry, but I already have a copy.

I wonder a bit about the Gideons.  Is there anyone – and I mean anyone – in the state of South Carolina who does not have access to a Christian bible?  It seems to me that distributing bibles in this state is simply a waste of money.

It’s a start

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

Until now, I’ve not blogged about John Freshwater.  He’s the Ohio fundamentalist who’s been busted for forcing his religion onto students in his public school classroom.

But as someone who teaches, I have to say something.  I teach adults (usually) instead of children, but I often teach in a laboratory environment.  My top priority in a lab situation is to keep my students safe.  I don’t want my students burning themselves, spilling chemicals on themselves, cutting themselves with broken glassware, or accidentally stumbling onto any of the other ways to get hurt in the chemistry lab.  I want them to learn something and to have fun, but I want them leaving in at least as good a condition as they were in when they arrived.

With that in mind, I just read that the Mount Vernon school board has planned to fire John Freshwater.  Good.  It’s a start.  He has no business in a classroom.

And, though I admit that I have little patience with fundamentalist loons like Freshwater, I don’t think his religion is his real problem.  Sure, he should be fired for pushing his religion in science class.  You’re not allowed to do that on the taxpayer’s dime.  But let’s remember what else went on:

Freshwater burned crosses onto the arms of some of his students and told them that gays are sinners, the school board said in a resolution the five members passed unanimously yesterday after meeting privately to discuss the results of an investigation.

Firing him is letting him off too easy.  This clown is supposed to be a science teacher – someone who inspires his young students with a love of science while ensuring they stay safe – and he’s deliberately injuring them?  He should be prosecuted and jailed if found guilty.  After being fired, of course …