In November, the Texas Board of Education met to consider their new science standards. As I’ve mentioned a major point of contention is a reference in the current standards to “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific explanations, a concept only ever applied to evolution, and without any clear explanation of what it means.

In the course of 6 hours of testimony, witnesses constantly asked what these “weaknesses” were, and got no clarity. Finally, at an ungodly hour, Cynthia Dunbar (the one who thinks public schools are evil and that President Obama is a s3kr1t Mussulman) gave her explanation. In the course of doing so, she perpetuated blatant falsehoods about a Nobel Prize-winning doctor.

A concerned teacher observed that:

[During the 2003 textbook hearings in Texas] Much of the testimony given in support of 3A, the strengths and weaknesses, was given by the Discovery Institute, who were here, giving presentations on that. In that case, they were using this as a strategy for keeping open the idea of “teaching the controversy,” which doesn’t seem to be as prevalent within the scientific community as it does within our community at large.

Dunbar replied:

D: OK, but the last testimony heard was that science is not something that’s determined by majority vote, there is a scientific method.

I would like to have someone of the magnitude of Dr. Werner Abner [sic] here. I don’t know if you know who he is. Are you familiar with him?

A: Not right off the top of my head, no.

Dunbar: He is a Nobel laureate. He spent his life doing studies in evolution and genetics. I don’t think we could get him here, I think he’s in Switzerland. But his, his years and years and years and years of research in genetics and evolution are very, very credible, and his end result recently, I think it was in September, was that the genetic code, and genetic mutations are actually built in to a limitation that they can only go so far, which is contrary to the ultimate result of natural selection and all of that. But that would not be someone outside of the scientific community?

At which point the discussion proceeds to whether she wants religious taught in science class

Later, Dunbar and a student from UT got into the same discussion:

A: My question would be: Where’s the data to prove the, I believe it’s four weaknesses, four limitations. Where’s the data for that? It’s my understanding that the entire scientific community doesn’t believe that they exist.

D: First of all, science is not based on majority rule,

A: Right

D: And there’s lots of data. Do you know who Werner Arber is? He’s a PhD and a Nobel laureate.

A: I believe I heard you talking about him earlier.

D: And do you know who he is.

A: Not extensively.

D: Go Google him. Because he spent his life on evolution and genetics. So there is data out there [on the weaknesses of evolution], we don’t want that squelched. We want to be able to discuss it. And as a political science major, I would hope that you of all people would want there to be open discussion these types of issues within the classroom.

A: You keep talking about the scientific method. When these four weaknesses are applied to the scientific method and they fail? I don’t understand ?

D: His documentation, if you go read it, I mean it’s very clear as to the geneticists and the documentation of the mutations and all that. I mean it’s not anything that fails, it’s testable, it’s observable, it’s right there. But those are the types of the things that we want the students to be able to discuss ?

So Dunbar wants Arber’s response, eh? Taking her advice, I did Google him. One thing I learned is that he did not publish anything in September, but an article by Jerry Bergman was published about him in that month’s issue of Acts & Facts, the newsletter of the young earth creationist Institute for Creation Research.

Setting aside everything I will lay out from this point forward, it is important to note that, based on Dunbar’s comments and the ICR article, she clearly based her understanding of this scientific matter on a single article in a creationist magazine, and is ignoring the testimony and guidance not only of the AAAS, the NAS, and her own committee of experts, but Texan Nobel Prize-winners. Educational policy should never be made on the basis of creationist publications, especially when those publications make demonstrably false statements. The references to a publication in September alone demonstrate that she is relying on the ICR piece, and various shared misinterpretations confirm this.

In the article, ICR’s Jerry Bergman insisted that Arber is an ID supporter, largely on the basis of an interview from the early 1990s, collected by Ray Varghese. Varghese is at the center of a controversy over Anthony Flew’s conversion from atheism to deism, and is accused of passing his own words off as Flew’s in order to make him seem more Christian than he is.

Arber also co-organized a conference on evolution for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences last November, at which he firmly stated his support for evolution as science and his belief that it is compatible with religious faith.

His own research shows no signs of doubts about evolution, and indeed he has published work with such luminaries of evolutionary biology as Richard Lenski, and his own Nobel-winning work on restriction enzymes has been powerfully useful to evolutionary biology.

Certain that ICR had misrepresented Dr. Arber, I contacted some of his professional colleagues to see if they could make him aware of this apparent error in the ICR’s article, and in Dunbar’s mangled repetition of the same points. One colleague replied that “That certainly seems to me to be a misrepresentation of Prof. Arber’s views on the matter, and quite amazing.”

Dr. Arber also wrote back, with thanks for alerting him to the problem. He included a statement he had sent to ICR refuting the article and Dunbar’s interpretation of it, adding that I was “welcome to make use of this statement in relevant situations.” He also pointed out a common problem in dealing with creationists: “I slowly learn to write my papers by taking care to reduce the chance of misinterpretation, but this is not easy.” Given creationists’ propensity for misrepresentation and quotemining, it is indeed difficult to prevent such misinterpretation.

Dr. Arber’s response to the ICR is below the fold. English is not his native tongue, so the language is a bit stilted at times. There should be no doubt, though, that Dr. Arber was misrepresented by the ICR and by Cynthia Dunbar. Had he been at the hearings, as Dunbar wished, he would surely have denied that evolution is riddled with weaknesses, and indeed affirms that “I stand fully behind the NeoDarwinian theory of biological evolution and I contributed to confirm and expand this theory at the molecular level so that it can now be called Molecular Darwinism.”

Statement on my view on biological evolution

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

I recently got aware of an article entitled “Werner Arber: Nobel Laureate, Darwin Skeptic” that was published in September 2008 by the Institute for Creation Research and that is authored by Jerry Bergman, Ph.D. This article completely misinterprets my general conclusions that I base on several decades of studies in microbial genetics. A number of citations are taken out of their original context and surrounded by comments and misinterpretations by the author of the article.

The truth is that I have contributed to advance scientific knowledge on biological evolution by studying molecular mechanisms of genetic variation. Genetic variation is clearly the driving force of biological evolution. A number of different specific molecular mechanisms contribute to spontaneous genetic variation. Together with non-genetic elements specific gene products are thereby involved as variation generators and as modulators of the rates of genetic variation. These are established facts that are based on experimental evidences and that are valid for the course of biological evolution as it works today in living organisms. Theoretically, one can extrapolate into the past history of life development on Earth. One can, e.g., postulate how the genes involved in biological evolution may have become fine-tuned to insure to living organisms a comfortable genetic stability and at the same time to the populations of living organisms an evolutionary development, including adaptability to changing living conditions and an expansion of biodiversity. In contrast, there is, so far, neither satisfactory scientific knowledge nor theory on the origin and early evolution of life on our planet.

On solid scientific grounds one cannot expect to discover if a Creator as defined by religious beliefs and sometimes referred to as intelligent design or God’s Will, could be responsible for the origin and subsequent evolution of life. Serious scientific investigations can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God or a possible impact of God on evolutionary processes. In our civilization, both scientific knowledge and religious beliefs contribute essentially to our orientating knowledge, but these two sources of our worldview should not be intermingled.
In conclusion, I am neither a “Darwin skeptic” nor an “intelligent design supporter” as it is claimed in Bergman’s article. I stand fully behind the NeoDarwinian theory of biological evolution and I contributed to confirm and expand this theory at the molecular level so that it can now be called Molecular Darwinism.

Werner Arber
Professor emeritus for Molecular Microbiology,
University of Basel.
Nobel Laureate Medicine/Physiology 1978

Comments

  1. #1 GaryB
    January 21, 2009

    Any chance of getting this letter read out loud in front of Dunbar?

  2. #2 The Curmudgeon
    January 21, 2009

    Creationists misrepresenting the views of scientists? I’m shocked. Shocked!

  3. #3 Matt
    January 21, 2009

    I’m sure that this was just an honest mistake on Dunbar’s part, has never happened before, and will never happen again. Boy was it hard to type this with a straight face!

  4. #4 Sigmund
    January 21, 2009

    Wait a second…….
    “a Creator as defined by religious beliefs and sometimes referred to as intelligent design or God’s Will, could be responsible for the origin and subsequent evolution of life”
    The power of the quote mine defeats you yet again!

  5. #5 Tony Whitson
    January 21, 2009

    Nobody challenged her on Arber in November, and I was wondering when that would happen.

    I was looking in Web of Science & Lexis/Nexis to figure out what the “September” reference was, & concluded her memory was from that creationist blog. Apparently, she doesn’t know the difference between polemical blog postings and research articles in scientific journals.

    His recent articles seem to depart from classical Darwinism mainly by arguing that variation prior to selection is not just a matter of random mutations in the form of errors of replication, but that there are natural mechanisms/processes to generate variation. He’s not an evolution skeptic, but believes that nature itself systematically “cares” to ensure evolution.

    I was going to write about this, and was thinking of writing to Arber; but I decided to wait until after today to see what more Dunbar would do with her favorite example of an “anti-Darwin” scientist.

  6. #6 kc
    January 21, 2009

    Thanks,Josh.
    If you move to Texas and run for State Board of Education, I’ll vote for you.

  7. #7 frozsa
    January 21, 2009

    I did a nearly 6 year post-doc in Werner Arber’s lab during the 90s. Like many Swiss, he is both *very* private and cordial man. As far as his English prose, I never felt comfortable correcting minor mistakes in someone’s fourth language. There was never, I repeat NEVER, even a whiff of skepticism regarding evolution. As a Nobel laureate, he was constantly bombarded with requests for support for weird, paranormal stuff. I am glad he came out with this rebuttal.

  8. #8 Tony Whitson
    January 21, 2009

    Later (around 7:45) Hillis did read the final paragraph of Arber’s letter.

    After tonight’s session is over I will post an audio file of the Hillis session and the others at
    http://curricublog.wordpress.com/2009/01/21/tx-sboe-science-hearings/

    There are audio files there now for three hours of the earlier session.

  9. #9 snaxalotl
    January 21, 2009

    “Any chance of getting this letter read out loud in front of Dunbar?”

    any chance of slapping Dunbar in the face for pretending she understood (or even read) something she clearly didn’t? standard fanatical technique of waiting for the audience to be isolated from any resources that might contradict, before making unsupportable assertions (and of course a misspelling facilitates this sleight of hand)

    Arber aside, and kitzmiller aside, there are countless sunday schools still being confidently told that a couple of geniuses have written thick books proving evolution is impossible, so you have no option except believe everything we tell you or spend eternity in hell

  10. #10 deep
    January 21, 2009

    “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.”

    Oh, creationists.

  11. #11 David B.
    January 22, 2009

    If Dr. Arbor is taking care to avoid misrepresentation, it is perhaps unfortunate that he chose to talk of genes becoming “fine-tuned”, or stating that there is no satisfactory theory for either the origin of life or its early evolution.

    Both statements may be correct, but I shudder to imagine how they may be quote-mined and spun in future creationist diatribes.

  12. #12 David B.
    January 22, 2009

    “Arber” not Arbor. (Stupid #&*@%*# spell-checker!)

  13. #13 Scott Hatfield, OM
    January 22, 2009

    Good work, Josh!

    SH

  14. #14 veritas36
    January 22, 2009

    “Lying for Jesus is no sin.”
    Sarcastic comment from a physical scientist after hearings by the state legislature in 1982 on providing ‘religious balance’ to all viewpoints.
    A group orchestrated by some bright young men with California tans and sharp suits testified that “Evolution is the founding creed of the Unitarian Church (sic)”. Therefore all religious ideas should be taught as science.
    They could have called any Unitarian-Universalist minister in the phone book and at least found out the founding ideas of the church.
    By the way, who were these guys? I think this was before the Discover Institute.

  15. #15 Dr William L Rubink
    January 22, 2009

    Dunbar deserves kudos for such an overt demonstration of her knowledge of science and scientists. I wonder if she frequents Crawford,TX and surrounding area. I suspect she might find a staunch supporter of her pre-enlightenment philosophy there.

  16. #16 John A. Michon
    January 23, 2009

    I am really flabberghasted about the behavior displayed by Texan State Board of Education. Rarely does one find such attitudes and demeanors concentrated in committees of that standing… only when the context is religious or related to football. It leaves me with the sad impression that the chairman and several of his confederates on this Board view science not as a precious accomplishment of the human species to be cherished and cultivated, but just as a disposable to be used at their discretion for furthering their essentially religious purposes. I am particularly struck by the glaring incompetence of some members of the Board with respect to what science is about and about their lack of insight in the cognitive abilities and limitations of young humans, viz. high school students.

    This by itself would not have brought me to the point of commenting on this blog — others, closer to the epicenter of this turmoil can do a much better job. Following up on a link in the relevant TFN blog, however, I was led to a creationist site (Bible and Science Library) that, as of this moment, is (still) advertising Werner Arber as one of the greatest creationist scientists of the world (featured as such in their October 2008 page)

    (see http://creationsafaris.com/crev200810.htm#fcsotm)

    Surprisingly (but not illogically given Professor Arber’s reaction on the present issue, triggered initially by State Board Member Dunbar) the link on that page that should lead you to a biography of Werner Arber will not get you to one (anymore). Instead it leads to a page about the World’s Greatest Creation Scientists, glorifying such people as Wilder-Smith, Henry Morris and Richard Lumsden. No trace there of Werner Arber (anymore)… Indeed it is never too late to take back a grave error of judgment (as long as you do it before a final vote, Ms Dunbar).

  17. #17 Tony Whitson
    January 23, 2009

    “Dunbar deserves kudos for such an overt demonstration of her knowledge of science and scientists. I wonder if she frequents Crawford,TX and surrounding area. I suspect she might find a staunch supporter of her pre-enlightenment philosophy there.”

    Nope — he gots no more need for that “rancher” act. W’s moving to Dallas. Actually, in recent interviews, he’s even given up his earlier creationist pose.

    As for Dunbar, I think she has no idea what the literature in science is like. She thinks all scientist take positions and write them up on blogs, like the scientists she reads on the creationist blogs (scientist like Meyer, that is). So she really doesn’t know the difference between what she reads and what scientists write. I think this is ignorance more than it’s deception; but it’s still damnably culpable and dishonest ignorance, when done by someone attempting to wield such authority.

    Remember where she got her law degree — the same place as the Bush Justice Department lawyer who didn’t know the difference between professional legal practice, and partisan politics, and fundamentalist evangelism in the hiring of Justice Department Lawyers. See
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monica_Goodling

  18. #18 Tony Whitson
    January 23, 2009

    I should add that not only Goodling, but large numbers of other Regents Law School graduates got jobs in the Bush administration, and at Justice, in particular. See
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regent_University#Bush_administration_hires

  19. #19 veritas36
    January 24, 2009

    I read 450 lawyers from Regent University were hired into Justice by Goodling, etc. In preference to lawyers from Yale, Harvard, other law schools you may have heard of. For civil service merit positions, not political positions.
    According to Civil Service law, which Goodling may never have heard of, the nonpolitical government jobs are to be filled according to the merit of the applicant. An elaborate process is supposed to be applied for these positions.
    I’ve no information as to the ability of graduates of Regent to serve the nation in all matters of law. I have a hunch many of them do poor jobs. I hope the new Administration can dump them out, but many may have been employed ‘satisfactorily’ for more than 3 years.

  20. #20 John Grossoehme
    January 24, 2009

    As I followed the Google listing for AIGbusted. I fail to see how Dunbar is in anyway associated with Dunbar. It appears that this article has practiced the very same thing that it accuses of Dunbar-MISREPRESENTATION. What a bunch of hypocrites. Talk about being open-minded? You people are the most closed minded and attack the person – referring to Dunbar rather than only what she said.

  21. #21 T. Bruce McNeely
    January 25, 2009

    John G. – WTF are you talking about?

  22. #22 POfox
    January 25, 2009

    John Grossoehme:

    “I fail to see how Dunbar is in anyway associated with Dunbar.”
    That probably makes the list of the top 5 most confusing things I’ve ever read. I’ll assume it was a typo.

    Please explain any misrepresentation you found in this article.

    What she said shows that she is too stupid(or just plain dishonest) to belong on the Board of Education. We are attacking her for that stupidity. If someone made a racist comment would you call us closed minded for attacking the person behind the comment instead of just the comment itself?

    When someone in her position does things like this it is an indication that they can’t use the power they’ve been given responsibly. Ignoring it or pretending it’s no big deal is also irresponsible. Imagine if she were elected as a board member again because no one spoke up.

  23. #23 Bob
    January 27, 2009

    On behalf of hard working parents who are too busy teaching their kids and working hard to pay school taxes to follow local politics, thank you very much to Josh for pursuing this issue. I only noticed the issue in the New York Times last week. This been eye opening!The live blogging was excellent! As a father who cares about his kids education with one in school, I looked up my representative and sent an email expressing my views before the vote. Surprise. My rep is Cynthia Dunbar. In the days following the vote, I conducted more research on her. It made my stomach turn that this person claims to represent me regarding what our schools teach. She is the antithesis of my beliefs regarding church and schools. I am a registered Republican and have let her know how people like her make the Republican Party appear to be the lunatic fringe, and how in the next primary, I will be voting for science and logic in our schools rather than superstition and magic. If she wins the primary, I will be voting for the Democratic rep who can at least get this issue right. One more thing that I noticed while I researched Cynthia. Doesn’t anybody else find it odd that she claims to be a Conservative and supports smaller government when her husband works for the County (whom I’d bet brings home most of the bacon in the family since she seems to be phantom lawyer)?

  24. #24 Michael
    January 27, 2009

    I wonder why there is no drive to teach that it is just a “theory” that the sun will rise tomorrow?

    After all, if the earth is flat, as the church taught, the round earth theory is pure heresy! (FWIW, I believe 100% in evolution, if that is not clear ;>):

    ** Induction is, simply, making an inference from the observed to the unobserved. For instance, one may infer that the sun will rise tomorrow morning solely because he has observed that the sun has risen every morning in the past.

    In other words, experience of the sun rising every morning in the past assumedly provides one with knowledge of causal relations ….. To use another example, one may infer from the proposition that “all bodies of water that have been observed are wet” to the conclusion that “all bodies of water are wet”. So, then, the question remains: Is one entitled to hold such beliefs based on induction?

    Hume holds that one has no reason whatsoever to make inferences from the observed to the unobserved …. the problem of induction simply amounts to whether inductive reasoning provides one with a valid argument for inferring one event on the basis of another. ***

  25. #25 Steven Schafersman
    January 27, 2009

    John Michon said:
    “I am really flabberghasted about the behavior displayed by Texan State Board of Education. Rarely does one find such attitudes and demeanors concentrated in committees of that standing…I am particularly struck by the glaring incompetence of some members of the Board with respect to what science is about and about their lack of insight in the cognitive abilities and limitations of young humans, viz. high school students.”

    Flabbergasted? Incompetence? Lack of insight? This sort of stuff has been going on at the Texas State Board of Education since the 1970s. It won’t stop until the SBOE is abolished. The SBOE attracts Creationists like mobile trailer parks in Texas attract tornadoes. That’s where the power is to subvert as much science education as possible with the least amount of work. As long as ignorant, Biblical Literalists, Young Earth Creationists can be elected on partisan ballots for this political position, we will continue to have incompetence and lack of insight on the Texas SBOE, and we will continue to all be flabbergasted.

  26. #26 Tony Whitson
    January 28, 2009

    John Michon writes:

    “I am particularly struck by the glaring incompetence of some members of the Board with respect to what science is about and about their lack of insight in the cognitive abilities and limitations of young humans, viz. high school students.”

    What Board member Mercer keeps saying, in effect, is that he does know the cognitive capabilities of high school students, and they are every bit as able to understand the science as he is, himself.

    I think he may actually be understating their ability.

  27. #27 Tony Whitson
    January 29, 2009

    I have a long post up now on the exchange between Cynthia Dunbar and Eugenie Scott on January 21 concerning Arber, at
    http://curricublog.wordpress.com/2009/01/29/dunbar-scott-arber/

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