Creationism in the national curriculum

Cross-posted onto Young Australian Skeptics

Australia is in the process of creating a national curriculum, but the current draft of the history curriculum contains the following (emphasis added):

Students develop their historical skills in an investigation of TWO of the following controversial issues:

  1. human origins (e.g. Darwin’s theory of evolution and its critics)
  2. dating the past (e.g. radio-carbon dating, tracing human migrations using DNA)
  3. fakes and forgeries (e.g. Piltdown Man, the Treasure of Priam, Noah’s Ark, the Turin Shroud)
  4. the use and display of human remains (e.g. repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander human remains, The Iceman, Egyptian mummies, Lady Dai)
  5. imperialistic attitudes towards archaeological property (e.g. Indigenous cultural artefacts from around the world)
  6. the ownership of cultural property (e.g. the return of Parthenon sculptures)
  7. the impact of war and terrorism on antiquities (e.g. the Buddhas of Bamyan, the looting of Iraqi museums)
  8. political and ideological uses of archaeology (e.g. archaeology under the Nazis and Fascists)
  9. a school-developed study of a controversial issue.

Students examine the nature and context of the controversy, including:

  1. the historical background
  2. the extent of the controversy (media coverage, nationalistic feeling, government involvement) and significant developments relating to the controversy
  3. different perspectives and their bases
  4. an assessment of the different perspectives.

Now, in terms of say, science, those first two are roughly as historical “controversies” such as Velikovsky’s theories, or ancient astronauts. So why are there in the curriculum? Well, it looks pretty much like – actually, exactly like – the “teach the controversy” campaign aimed at teaching students falsehoods in the US. Now, the points each look like they’re perfectly reasonable, and the intention is that look perfectly reasonable – but they give a creationist teacher an opportunity to teach or reward blatant falsehoods. It’s then a lottery as to whether you get a history teacher with the necessary scientific knowledge to accurately assess technical details on radiocarbon dating, or one who repeats long-debunked nonsense.

There’s also the Piltdown man in there, and again, that could work, just as long as you don’t get a creationist teacher. It is in there with other hoaxes such as the various “findings” of Noah’s ark or the Turin shroud, and that’s something at least.

Furthermore, these are scientific topics – why would they be introduced into the history curriculum, instead of the science curriculum? Well, as PZ put it:

The science side of the debate has gotten hardened by repeated attacks, and is usually better prepared to resist the foolishness, so they switch targets and catch history or philosophy off guard. Every academic discipline is subject to this corruption.

However, in this case, there is something you can do. The draft curriculum is open for consultation. The creationist questions can be found here, under unit 2 (you’ll need to register first).

Hat-tip: PZ Myers

“Mike’s Nature trick”

Cross-posted on Young Australian Skeptics

One of the most hyped emails from the Climategate hack was this one, sent by Phil Jones:

I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.

“Proxy records” for temperatures provide a method measuring temperature without having to have a convenient thermometer around. Many natural phenomena occur at different rates depending on climate conditions, and these differences can be observed in, for example, rocks, ice cores, corals and trees. Obviously, Earth has had a climate for a few billion years, rather than the few hundred years for which we’ve had thermometers. Accordingly, if you want to understand long-term climate you’ll need proxies. Tree rings are one common proxy record for spring-summer temperature, and, in general, closely match other proxy records and (when available) the instrumental (thermometer) record.

Until the late 20th century. The tree-ring divergence problem The “decline” refers to the “divergence problem”, documented in Briffa et. al. (1998). Basically, during recent years, the tree ring proxy record has been diverging away from the instrumental record, as shown in the figure on right.

There are several variables which can influence tree growth. At extremely high or low latitudes, temperatures are typically a major factor. If each of these other variables is held constant, changes in temperature will be echoed in the tree rings. However, if another of those variables starts changing, the tree ring trends will no longer reflect the temperature trends.

It seems that, late in the previous century, another of these variables started changing. Several hypotheses as to which variable(s) are changing have been made, and are discussed, for example, in D’Arrigo et. al. (2008).

So what was “Mike’s Nature trick”? The “trick” was used in Mann, Bradley & Hughes (1998). Basically, it involves a diagram of the Northern Hemisphere temperature record from 1610-1995, the “NH” portion of figure 7.
Mike's Nature "trick"
From 1610-1980, they use the tree ring record. However, from 1981, the proxy record diverges away from the instrumental data, and so they use the instrumental data for that period. If you look closely (click to embiggen), you’ll notice that the last part of the diagram is drawn differently – the proxy record (1610-1980) is a dashed line, the instrumental record (1981-1995) is a dotted line. This is explained clearly in the diagram’s caption:

‘NH’, reconstructed NH temperature series from 1610–1980, updated with instrumental data from 1981–95.

And that’s it.

So “Mike’s Nature trick” consisted of a legitimate way of displaying the most accurate available data, clearly documented in Mike’s Nature paper.

Other posts

Here are a few other relevant posts discussing this (feel free to let me know about any other good posts):


Briffa, Keith; et. al. (1998) Trees tell of past climates: but are they speaking less clearly today? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B January 29, 1998 353:65-73; doi:10.1098/rstb.1998.0191 [fulltext]

D’Arrigo, Rosanne; Wilson, Rob; Liepert, Beate; Cherubini, Paolo (2008). On the ‘Divergence Problem’ in Northern Forests: A review of the tree-ring evidence and possible causes. Global and Planetary Change (Elsevier) 60: 289-305. doi:10.1016/j.gloplacha.2007.03.004 [<a href="fulltext]

Mann, Michael; Bradley, Raymond; Hughes, Malcolm (1998). Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries. Nature 392, 779–787. doi:10.1038/nature02478 [fulltext]

Review: The Greatest Show on Earth

[cross-posted onto Young Australian Skeptics]

In previous books, Richard Dawkins has looked to promote new perspectives on natural selection, and at barriers to the understanding of evolution. In The Greatest Show on Earth, however, he looks at the evidence for evolution. You can read extracts from chapter one and chapter two online.

One of the book’s major strengths is the level of detail that Dawkins goes to in explaining difficult concepts and interesting experiments. For example, in the chapter on embryonic development, we learn how (well, one of the ways) in which mutations in the genome actually affect what a cell can do. This level of detail is a recurring feature. For example, we are treated 14 pages of glorious detail on Richard Lenski’s E. coli experiments, much of which I personally hadn’t picked up on when the story broke.

Dawkins considers molecular evidence to be the strongest line of evidence for evolution, and so the fossil record is just a bonus. He clearly outlines the problems with claiming that “gaps” in the fossil record make an argument against evolution. As far as fossils are concerned, the focus is on some of the more recent finds – and what a selection he has to choose from! He discusses tetrapods, whales, manatees, pinipeds (seals, sea lions & walruses) and turtles. It’s certainly a daunting prospect, to be claiming gaps in the fossil record, in the face of just these recent fossils. The discussion of homology was strong, not least for explicitly reverting to a pre-evolution definition of homology.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on development and molecular evidence – not least because of my unfamiliarity with these areas, and thus there was plenty for me to learn. I’m somewhat hopeful I’ll manage to work some self-organising systems into my doctorate somewhere.

Maybe I’m just a fan of cladograms, but I feel a couple of high-level cladograms – one of vertebrates (with a particular focus on the varieties of fish) and another of sauropsids – would have been worth a thousand words or so each. Another sour note was the mention of Andrew Schlafly in the discussion of the Lenski experiments, which mostly reeked of schadenfreude. I would have also avoided including any Haeckel drawings to illustrate any points – you just know that Haeckel’s crustaceans are going to give the history-deniers an irrelevant point to scream about whilst avoiding substantive discussion.

The depth of description – of the experiments, the discussion of human ancestry, and of the details of molecular & developmental biology is magnificent. As we’ve come to expect from Dawkins’ books, the writing is flowing and understandable, even on technical topics. And, as someone who had constantly had to maintain both my place in the main text and in the footnotes whilst reading The Selfish Gene, I was glad to see that the footnotes are at the bottom of each page, as opposed to at the back of the book.

Of course, Jerry Coyne published Why Evolution is True earlier this year. Is it worth reading both? The answer: yes, emphatically yes! Both books have very different lines of evidence on which they focus – Dawkins, for example, is highly focused on experiments, whereas Coyne focused more on observation in nature and the fossil record. Many lines of evidence, or topics for discussion, are only in one or other, or emphasised differently. There’s also a distinct difference in how they discuss creationism – Dawkins only mentions it occasionally and tends to give the evidence for evolution on its own merit (except in the chapter on biogeography, really).

So, yes, go and buy it. More importantly, go and read it!