August 2008

From The New York Times:

ORANGE PARK, Fla. — David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

In February, the Florida Department of Education modified its standards to explicitly require, for the first time, the state’s public schools to teach evolution, calling it “the organizing principle of life science.” Spurred in part by legal rulings against school districts seeking to favor religious versions of natural history, over a dozen other states have also given more emphasis in recent years to what has long been the scientific consensus: that all of the diverse life forms on Earth descended from a common ancestor, through a process of mutation and natural selection, over billions of years.

But in a nation where evangelical Protestantism and other religious traditions stress a literal reading of the biblical description of God’s individually creating each species, students often arrive at school fearing that evolution, and perhaps science itself, is hostile to their faith.

Read the full article


Supernatural science: Why we want to believe
Monsters are everywhere these days, and belief in them is as strong as ever

By Robert Roy Britt

Monsters are everywhere these days, and belief in them is as strong as ever. What’s harder to believe is why so many people buy into hazy evidence, shady schemes and downright false reports that perpetuate myths that often have just one ultimate truth: They put money in the pockets of their purveyors.

The bottom line, according to several interviews with people who study these things: People want to believe, and most simply can’t help it.

“Many people quite simply just want to believe,” said Brian Cronk, a professor of psychology at Missouri Western State University. “The human brain is always trying to determine why things happen, and when the reason is not clear, we tend to make up some pretty bizarre explanations.”

A related question: Does belief in the paranormal have anything to do with religious belief?

The answer to that question is decidedly nuanced, but studies point to an interesting conclusion: People who practice religion are typically encouraged not to believe in the paranormal, but rather to put their faith in one deity, whereas those who aren’t particularly active in religion are more free to believe in Bigfoot or consult a psychic.

“Christians and New Agers, paranormalists, etc. all have one thing in common: a spiritual orientation to the world,” said sociology Professor Carson Mencken of Baylor University.

A tale last week by three men who said they have remains of Bigfoot in a freezer was reported by many Web sites as anywhere from final proof of the creature to at least a very compelling case to keep the fantasy ball rolling and cash registers ringing for Bigfoot trinkets and tourism (all three men involved make money off the belief in this creature). Even mainstream media treated a Friday press conference about the “finding” as news.

Reactions by the public ranged from skeptical curiosity to blind faith.

“I believe they do exist but I’m not sure about this,” said one reader reacting to a story on LiveScience that cast doubt the claim. “I guess we will find out … if this is on the up and up,” wrote another. “However, that said, I know they exist.”

A subsequent test on the supposed Bigfoot found nothing but the DNA of humans and an opossum, a small, cat-like creature.

Also last week, in Texas there was yet another sensational yet debunkable sighting of chupacabra, a beast of Latin-American folklore. The name means “goat sucker.” In this case, law enforcement bought into the hooey with an apparent wink and nod.

Ellie Carter, a patrol trainee with the DeWitt County sheriff’s office, saw the beast and was, of course, widely quoted. “It was this — thing, looking right at us,” she said. “I think that’s a chupacabra!” After watching a video of the beast taken by a sheriff’s deputy, biologist Scott Henke of Texas A&M University said, “It’s a dog for sure,” according to a story on Scientific American’s Web site.

Meanwhile, the sheriff did nothing to tamp down rampant speculation, expressing delight that he might have a monster on his hands. “I love this for DeWitt County,” said Sheriff Jode Zavesky, who would presumably be just as thrilled to let Dracula or a werewolf run free.

With that kind of endorsement and the human propensity to believe in just about anything, it’s clear that Bigfoot and chupacabra are just two members in a cast of mythical characters and dubious legends and ideas will likely never go away.

In a 2006 study, researchers found a surprising number of college students believe in psychics, witches, telepathy, channeling and a host of other questionable ideas. A full 40 percent said they believe houses can be haunted.

Why are people so eager to accept flimsy and fabricated evidence in support of unlikely and even outlandish creatures and ideas? Why is the paranormal realm, from psychic predictions to UFO sightings, so alluring to so many?

Read the full article.

From the Herald-Tribune:

Meg Lowman, a noted ecologist, has studied jungle canopies for years and will share her stories at the Women’s Equity Day luncheon on Aug. 23. Lowman will speak about how gender inequality still affects science, and how she overcame challenges.

Read the full article.

Event details:

Date: Aug. 23; registration 11 a.m., lunch starts at noon.

Place: Bradenton Municipal Auditorium at City Centre, 1005 Barcarrota Blvd. in Bradenton.

Tickets: $30; call Vicki Waters at 753-9741. For exhibit information, call Gini Hyman at 961-7982. More info / buy tickets online

Contact: Yvette Kimm at

Noted feminist author and researcher Barbara G. Walker will speak on the subject of “Sexism” at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota, 3975 Fruitville Road (map), on Sunday, August 24, at 10:30 a.m. Ms. Walker is the author of “The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets,” “The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects,” “The Crone,” “Feminist Fairy Tales,” and many other books and articles. She is a member of the Gulf Coast Humanists and the Unitarian Congregation of Venice, and has given talks and workshops to a number of groups around our area.

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From ScienceDaily:

Ever since Darwin, evolutionary biologists have wondered why some lineages have diversified more than others. A classical explanation is that a higher rate of diversification reflects increased ecological opportunities that led to a rapid adaptive radiation of a clade.

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What happens when you take a really skanky sex story and dress it up in a lot of flowery words? You get the Bible. Or large chunks of it, anyway.

Sure, rather than using phrases such as “reverse frog squat,” or “slinging manjam,” Biblical sex is referenced almost exclusively as “coming in unto” (a phrase still used by porn stars who tend to drop the “in unto”). But once you get past the unimaginative verbs, the Bible has some nasty, nasty stories. Such as:

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Singer Isaac Hayes died on Sunday at the age of 65. Besides being a sex symbol, a soul-music legend, and a beloved voice-over artist, Hayes was also a dedicated Scientologist. According to his religious beliefs, what happens to Hayes now that he’s passed away?

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From The Raw Story:

Author Ron Suskind said on Monday’s Daily Show that the real significance of the forged letter from the head of Iraqi intelligence revealed in his new book is not precisely who created it, but why.

Suskind told Jon Stewart that following the invasion of Iraq and the failure to find WMD’s, “the White House orders the CIA to fabricate a letter from this guy Habbush which clears them of their political dilemma of going to war under false pretenses.”

Suskind explained that as early as January 2003, months before the invasion of Iraq, “There’s a relationship to the Iraq intelligence chief. … We made him our source. … He tells us there are no WMD.” However, the administration blew off the CIA’s reports on Habbush, preferring to believe the claims by a low-level informant, known as “Curveball,” that Iraq was actively producing WMD’s.

As a result, once the war had started, Habbush became an embarrassment. “We end up paying him $5 million and hiding him,” Suskind stated. “He’s kind of radioactive as that summer unfolds and it’s clear there are no weapons.”

According to Suskind, even though the Habbush letter was not released until December 2003, it was created in direct response to Joseph Wilson’s debunking of the earlier Niger forgeries in July 2003. Not only does the Habbush letter tie Iraq to al Qaeda, but it also refers to an Iraqi purchase of uranium from Niger and its shipment across Syria.

As previously reported by Raw Story, the United States was actively attempting to discover, or even fabricate, evidence of Iraqi WMD’s or uranium purchases throughout the spring and summer of 2003. The Habbush forgery appears to have directly followed the failure of those attempts.

“Is it weird that those things were in there?” Stewart asked Suskind.

“It’s kind of an overreach moment,” Suskind agreed. “That overreach kind of revealed it to be fraudulent.”

Suskind went on to suggest that “the White House obviously is intensely interested, because there may be illegality that has constitutional consequences.”

“That may be the nicest way of saying ‘impeachment’ I think I’ve ever seen in my life,” Stewart replied.

“Quite a little circus we’re running here,” Stewart commented in conclusion. “This does not seem to have created the firestorm that you would think. … It must be weird to learn about this shit and then think, ‘Ooh, fourteen months from now, ooh, people are going to go crazy’ — but then they don’t.”

“I’ve done my part in this,” Suskind replied. “The book’s all about the way America’s moral authority is bled away and how we need to restore it.”


Scientists say different versions of a single gene linked to feelings of anxiety can explain the way in which some people simply cannot abide such movies, while others enjoy the suspense and the gore.

The findings may explain why it is that over the past 35 years people have had wildly different reactions to the classic horror film, The Exorcist.

While many screamed and some even fainted in cinemas at scenes of spinning heads and shaking beds, others simply laughed.

A particular variant of the ‘COMT’ gene affects a chemical in the brain that is linked to anxiety, they have found.

People who have two copies of one version of the gene are more easily disturbed when viewing unpleasant pictures, the scientists discovered.

That version of the gene weakens the effect of a signalling chemical in the brain that helps control certain emotions.

The scientists found that those carrying two copies of it were significantly more startled by frightening images than others.

By contrast, those who had one copy of the gene and one copy of another version were able to keep their emotions in check far more readily.

The study, published today in the scientific journal Behavioural Neuroscience, also found that those with two copies of the latter gene were also able to keep a lid on their anxiety more easily.

Researchers from the University of Bonn in Germany made the discovery after testing 96 women.

Then they showing them three different types of pictures – emotionally “pleasant” ones of smiling babies and cute animals, “neutral” ones of items like electric plugs or hairdryers, and “aversive” ones of weapons or injured victims.

The Exorcist was banned by some councils in Britain upon its release here in 1974, but broke box office records in the US to become the biggest selling horror movie of its day.

Psychologist Christian Montag, one of the University of Bonn researchers, said he thought the gene variant linked to scaring more easily had only recently evolved, as it was not present in other primates like chimpanzees.

He said the propensity to scare more easily could have offered an evolutionary advantage to humans.

While bravery appears to be prized in the animal kingdom, recklessness could have been a disadvantage to humans with their larger mental capacity to go away and figure a problem out.

Mr Montag said: “It was an advantage to be more anxious in a dangerous environment.”

However, he said a single gene variation could account for only some of people’s anxiety differences, otherwise, up to half the population would be anxious, he said.

“This single gene variation is potentially only one of many factors influencing such a complex trait as anxiety,” he said. “Still, to identify the first candidates for genes associated with an anxiety-prone personality is a step in the right direction.”

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