Sunday, October 29, 2006

Diversity Run Amok?

Seems there is a controversy in Minneapolis where certain Muslim taxi drivers are refusing to carry passengers that have alcohol in their luggage. According to a recent article in the Star Tribune by Katherine Kersten, the problem involves Somali cab drivers who do not want to carry passengers who have alcohol. She notes that the issue in part has to do with conflicting interpretations of the Koran by different Muslim groups and that the current problem stems from a fatwah issued by the Minnesota chapter of Muslim American Society.

This may seem like a minor issue, but it is really quite similar to the controversy about the "rights" of medical personal to refuse to dispense birth control or do some legal procedure that is against their religion. To me the issue is quite simple. We live in a secular society and it has been against the law for some time now to discriminate in public accommodations and in public transactions based on religious preferences.

To me this means if someone comes to you for your service, you do not have an automatic right to refuse to offer the service just because something about that person or that person's choices offends you. You do not have to approve of their choices but you need to provide the services, unless you have some safety or other legitimate medical consern about providing the service. The cabbies would, for instance, be well within their rights to refuse service to some one drinking or disrupting the peace, just as a pharmacist can refuse to dispense medicines for which a person does not have a valid prescription or a doctor can refuse to do a medically dangerous procedure.

Some might say, let the free market decide and on the surface that seems OK. But let's imagine a different situation. I hail a cab and just happen to be carrying a copy of Richard Dawkins the God Delusion. Would a Fundamentalist Christian cabbie be able to refuse me service? Most of the nation is Christian so were we to let market forces decide the issue then I might have difficulty getting a ride. We have anti discrimination laws precisely because market forces don't always work. They don't always protect the minority or the individual in what ought to be economic transactions or from violations of core American beliefs.

Not convinced? Well here is another example. On my campus we have a group of Christians who belong to Campus Crusade for Christ. Quite frankly I find their theology quite offensive personally and I know they find my theology equally offensive. Should I have the right to demand that they not advertise on campus because they offend me or some other subset of the campus community? Of course not, any more than they have the right to demand that gay groups, such as the college LGBT club be removed.

We live in a secular society: one that tries to balance respect for individual beliefs with protection of individual rights in public accomodation-transportation, education, services, and housing. It is this core value that most (I wish I could say all) Americans understand. It is this celebrating this sort of core value that we celebrate when we talk about diversity as something to celebrate. You don't have to approve of someone else's beliefs, but in our society you need to interact impartially with all the people you contact.

Links to articles about this case and the role of Muslims in America:

As an aside, much of the criticism of the cabbies seems driven by conservative fears about Muslims rather than conservative commitment to a secular society! So I detect just a hint of hypocrisy and fear mongering in some of these articles and blogs. After all Sharia is to be feared but this sort of thing doesn't raise an eyebrow. Where is Thomas Jefferson when you need him?,4670,MuslimCabbiesAlcohol,00.html

See if this suits you any better than Sharia:

or this:

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Last Word on MIchael J. Fox

Is here at Jon Swift's "conservative" blog. Enjoy.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Getting to Heaven?

My son is gay and last night a family friend told me what a wonderful son he is. Well I know that, but then she had to go on and say something to the effect that "I bet in 30 years he will be a Christian; it would be a shame to have heaven without Norman." I bit my tongue in the interest of keeping peace. I know, a mistake probably; but she is a fundamentalist Christian and there is not going to be any changing of her mind; just one of those jaw dropping comments that certain Christians make.

I am sure in her mind she has lots of rationale for her beliefs-Christ's comments about burning the weeds and so forth. But quite frankly, I have always questioned the belief that only Christians go to heaven. I remember asking my priest in high school how one could rationalize that the bulk of humanity would not go to heaven, since most of the population of this planet is not Christian, shocking as that may seem to fundamentalist Americans. His response was that if a person has the opportunity to hear the Word and refuses to come to Jesus, then yes that person goes to hell-weeds burnt in the flames. Needless to say, that makes no sense. Are there not many paths to God? Is there not one Spirit many gifts? Maybe being a Buddhist is a gift-worshipping God from that perspective. Isn't determining who goes to heaven something that is outside of human judgment?

What about determining who is Christian? I was surprised to find out when I left the North East to go to grad school at the University of Georgia, that many people down there didn't think Catholics are Christians, just as many Catholics think that the Roman Catholic Church is the one true Church and that if you are a Protestant then you are outside salvation. Further I was once damned by a member of Campus Crusade for Christ because I did not and do not believe in the literal interpretation of scripture and (gasp!) I also believe in evolution!

What am I going to make of my friend's comments? She prides herself on being tolerant of other people, but clearly this tolerance does not extend very far. You might think well so this is her personal belief so what's the harm? There is a certain sense I suppose that there is no harm. Maybe this is analogous to a "victimless crime", and certainly she is entitled to her benign opinion. She does not love my son any less because he is gay because after all that is indeed the Christian thing to do. The problem is that, this belief about who goes to heaven or who does not go to heaven, provides a wedge for less benign rationalizations and actions.

For example, if you carefully analyze the evolution controversy in Kansas, one recurring theme is the notion that belief in evolution leads to atheism. If atheists can't get to heaven then one ought not do anything that promotes atheism, including teaching evolution without some sort of warning that evolution is "just a theory not a fact". This really is a code phrase for evolution promotes atheism and therefore ought to be down played. After all don't we want to save souls? So science is sacrificed on the altar of theology.

Consider the issue of gay marriage. If one wants to say that marriage should be between a man and a woman, that sounds harmless enough. But when you analyze what actually is going on, many of the anti gay marriage amendments that have been proposed restrict civil unions, or provision any of the benefits that marriage confers, to gay couples. Why else is the President so incensed about the New Jersey Supreme Court decision that says that gay couples should have the same protections and rights (and presumably responsibilities) that heterosexual couples have? Clearly the issue is not about marriage but really about who goes to heaven. This is also probably why gay recovery ministries such as exodus have been promoted by many Christian groups. If your religion has conditioned you to believe being gay is a sin, it must be a matter of choice and hence reversible. Of course, giving gay couples access to the marriage contract system promotes the gay life style which we don't want to do because we want gays to go to heaven. Love the sinner hate the sin. Fine feel good slogan. Even Fred Phelps will say that. Love the sinner we want them to be able to go to heaven.

Consider, the Inquisition where people were tortured to get them to repent. Getting to heaven is after all so important that if a person doesn't believe like you do and therefore can't get to heaven, well he or she must be insane or the devil has misled him or her. So anything you for their eternal life is justified; torture is justified. Denying people the tools they need to form committed stable relationships is justified because one's sexual orientation and intimate behavior is not conducive to getting to heaven.

It all starts with the notion that it is OK to believe someone won't go to heaven because they don't believe or act like scripture says they ought to, at least in your intepretation. It's OK as long as you are tolerant and show Christian love. Love the sinner; hate the sin. It's OK, you say because "I am tolerant." But I wonder, is it really OK. Who are you to say my son won't go to heaven if he is not a Christian and if he is gay. Tell you what. Do what you think you need to get yourself into heaven and let my son worry about his own salvation. Or not if he so chooses.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Kansas Guild of Bloggers

Better late than never. Been a bit busy with family matters this last week but did uncover an interesting mix of articles.

First, from John over at Blog Meridian, a review of Mark Z. Danielewski's new novel, Only Revolutions followed by a funny look at the Dewey decimal and Library of Congress classification system. Brings back fond memories of my undergraduate school where some libraries used Dewey and others used Library of Congress.

Several bloggers have commented on recent changes in Kansas and national politics, and we can always count on Red State Rabble for political commentary, for instance this one, about Phil Kline's campaign.

Over at Right Minded Thinking, Jason gives a, well conservative, analysis of the Mark Foley scandal:

Striking a less serious tone, Lady Gunn wonders why October 22 is not a holiday:

Richard Dawkins spoke at KU last Monday and here are three different takes on Dawkins and his talk:

Forthekids, over at reasonablekansans, was not happy with his talk and thinks perhaps she was one of only a few people there that did not view Dawkins as the bearer of truth. I am not so sure about that, but certainly the audience was extremely friendly to Dawkins.

Pat Hayes of Red State Rabble is much friendlier to Dawkins and observes that "Dawkins sees a shifting of the tectonic plates when it comes to the public acceptance of non-belief. And Monday night, at the Lied Center, you could almost believe it was happening around you."

Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas liked parts of the talk but found other parts disappointing and I highly recommend following the discussion thread with this article:

Joel Mathis seems to need a good cuppa Joe right now and I think I do as well:

Finally I end with my own submission dealing with the death of my father-in-law who we buried today in Wetmore Kansas, north of Topeka.

The oldest building in Wetmore is the Jail which according to the historical marker is called the Calaboose. It looks like it can hold one prisoner...standing. This is a really interesting part of the state and maybe we can round up some bloggers from this area.

Pictures of Wetmore including the Calaboose are at:

If you have a Kansas related blog or article related to Kansas, submit your entry to the kgb's submission page! Next week's kgb carnival will be probably be back to Blog Meridian. So get blogging and submit something. You really don't want us to come after you.

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Quiet time.

My wife's father John Ely died at our house on Friday. He had cancer and we have (had) been taking care of him the last several weeks with help from Hospice. Thursday night all the family was around him telling stories and having a great time while he rested. We think he knew we were all there.

Friday morning my wife thought it was going to be OK for me to go teach so I went to school. Her brother and sister and were there. But I did something I don't ordinarily do and that is leave my cell phone on while I lectured. Sure enough right as I was starting my 11:00am class the phone vibrated and it was my wife telling me he had died.

She had told the rest of the family to go out for breakfast and she would watch him and had just gotten herself something to eat and put on some bluegrass music on for him when he had a couple of rattling breaths and he died. By the time I got home he was laid out and the Hospice people including the chaplain had arrived. As I type this in our master bedroom where he died, everything is quiet. My wife is in bed and I think when death comes I hope it comes to me as gracefully as for John Ely and with my family around as well.

One of the stories I remember was about the time the power company sent the "Electric police" to check on him. He was so frugal with his use of power that the utility thought that he was stealing electricity from the neighbors or that his meter was broken. In fact having seen how he lived...he defined frugal living. Those yuppie advocates of simple living can't hold a candle to him. Yet he had a sense of grace and humor right up to the end.

Both my parents are gone and that leaves such a hole in the mind that it never fills completely, and that loss hits at unexpected times and I see the same thing with my wife. She was fine until she came into this room last night and just couldn't take it knowing how much life there had been just the night before. Right now it is so quiet but I think it will be awhile before we are able to sleep here again.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Kansas Guild of Bloggers on Monday

The Kansas Guild of Bloggers will be hosted here on Monday.

And no, Kansans don't really believe in the Stork Theory, but this is a slide from Richard Dawkins talk at the University of Kansas last Monday...just one of the many interesting events in Kansas this week.

So if you have Kansas related blog entries, send them on via the kgb's submission page.

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Dawkins at KU

Finally getting around to posting about Richard Dawkin's visit last Monday to the University of Kansas. As might be expected most of his talk stuck pretty closely to the points made in his book, The God Delusion. The audience generally received him well and he got two standing ovations.

His major points dealt with what he sees as the improbability of God. He calls God the ultimate 747, in reference to Fred Hoyle's image of a 747 being assembled by chance. Dawkin's argues that if God really does keep tabs on everything in the universe then God must be more complex than the universe and hence even more improbable than life itself. This turns the creationist's favorite probability argument nicely on its head. In a not so subtle dig at Bill Dembski and related ID advocates Dawkins said about God that:

"God tries to get his free lunch and eat it too."

and he calls theistic solutions (that is God) for understanding the Universe "Grotesque amplifications" of the improbability problem.

He spent a lot of time discussing the power of natural selection as a process of accumulation and notes that natural selection rather than design is the alternative to chance and quite correctly I believe summarizes the creationist intelligent design argument as the 'illogic of default' and he had a wonderful syllogism that went something like this:

1. We have theory A and theory B

2. Theory A is very useful and supported by lots of empirical evidence.

3. Theory B is not useful and supported by no evidence.

4. I can't understand how theory A might explain a certain phenomenon.

5. Therefore theory B must be correct.

He makes an interesting contrast, which I am not sure is correct but certainly a good approximation to what creationists believe, between the role of ignorance in science and religion. Scientists readily admit ignorance and it drives scientists on to do research. I like to point out to my students using so called "Cell theory" as an example that a good theory points to its own weaknesses. Gaps in knowledge target scientific research, but in religion ignorance is seen as mystery and for intelligent design this gives victory by default. So in Dawkins' view the creationist is in effect arguing:

"Don't squander precious ignorance by researching it away, let's keep it as mystery"

Another major topic was the Anthropic principle which Dawkins characterizes as having a distinct Darwinian feel to it and these arguments are straight out of his book. He notes that the origin of life maybe highly improbable, but if so, if there are a billion billion planets where life could arise and the chance of life arising is 1 in a billion then the probability of life arising at least once in the universe is close to one. But once life, presumably in the sense of replicating molecules, then natural selection takes over from chance. Chance cannot explain the diversity of life on this planet, the explanation involves natural selection.

Toward the end of the talk he took written questions from the audience. For instance he was asked about Gould's idea that religion and science occupy non overlapping magisteria (NOMA). Dawkins clearly thinks this idea is nonsense and that a universe with God who violate physical law and do miracles would be a quite different place. He speculates that Gould really did not believe in NOMA but was an appeasement tactic that might make political sense. Theologians, in his view, like NOMA since there is no empirical evidence for religious claims.

Dawkins cannot bring himself to make this compromise, and here in he parts company with groups such as Kansas Citizens for Science who tend to accept the idea that science and religion are separate ways of knowing. I find myself in the middle. Science does not deal with questions of individual purpose, or existence of God because these are outside the empirical nature of science. Dawkins of course disagrees. But at the same time I tell my students that if you believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old, and believe in the Biblical flood and other metaphors as literal truth then your religion IS going to conflict with science.

Some local people I have talk with seem upset at Dawkins unwillingness to compromise and that he plays into the creationist argument that evolution leads to atheism. While I disagree with Dawkins on this point, I think in the long run evolutionists would be ill served politically by hiding these beliefs. Dawkins is right not to compromise. It seems to me that the science supporters need to do what I do which is to point out that one does not reject a scientific theory because it upsets you or leads you to question your religious beliefs.

Indeed the final question asked dealt more directly with Dawkins' belief that Darwinism does logically lead to Atheism and the notion that he is possibly acting as a "recruiting agent for the creationists". Dawkins admitted that the creationists would "rightly be gleeful." He observed that today Atheists are the "baddies along with pedophiles" and that hopefully this will change. He sees a shift in society in which Atheists and Agnostics are beginning to speak out. I hope he's right if only because that would signal a social retreat from the Fundamentalist absolutism of the Bush era and the cynical exploitation of religion by the administrations handlers.

Oh yes, I did get some books signed. I would have loved to have him sign my copy of the Selfish Gene but couldn't find it so had to be content with him signing my copies of The Ancestor's Tale and The God Delusion.

Here are some different perspectives of Dawkin's talk:

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

He don't get no respect!

Richard Dawkins gave a great talk last night and I will be posting more later this week, but imagine my surprise when I learned in today's Lawrence Journal World that a theoretical physicist had slammed intelligent design. Umm had I missed an important talk? Well no:

The award-winning Oxford University theoretical physicist talked on "The
God Delusion" at the Lied Center as part of the KU Hall Center's Humanities
Lecture Series. While the evolution debate has quieted since a majority of
pro-intelligent design Kansas Board of Education members were voted out in this
year's primary elections, Dawkins still stressed the importance of not buying
the logic behind the design theory. Design proponents, Dawkins said, believe
that any flaw in evolution theory means that biological design by a higher power
must be the answer. That, he said, is flatly not true.
"I.D. is granted immunity from the rigorous standards of science," he said.

Well, at least the reporter got some things right.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Richard Dawkins tommorrow at KU!

Richard Dawkins is speaking tommorrow at the University of Kansas' Lied Center and I will be there. His topic is The God Delusion and if you want a preview of the sorts of things that might be discussed, check out this article at PZ Myers' Pharyngula. PZ happens to have met Dawkins in England just recently.

Dawkins' talk at KU is part of the same series that brought Ken Miller to Lawrence. Dawkins is an outspoken atheist so I am sure there will be a lot of fire works generated by his talk.

I expect good coverage from other Kansas science and political type bloggers, so we should lots to choose from on Tuesday!

FYI I strongly recommend reading Dawkins' book The God Delusion. If you are an atheist or agnostic his arguements will re-enforce your beliefs. If you are a theist then his arguments are quite serious and you need to think about them and address them.

Other links:

Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

Mendel's Garden #8 is up!

Sandra Porter has been working hard in the Garden, harvesting and checking out some of the animal inhabitants of the Garden and getting the tools ready for winter. So go on over and take a look.

Thanks Sandra! If you are interested in hosting an upcoming Garden, contact me through the Carnival page here. There is always something to do and harvest in the Garden any season!

Links to earlier editions are at the Mendel's Garden Web site.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

More Kansas Political Lunacy

According to the Advocate, Senator Brownback is holding up a conservative's judicial nomination to the Federal bench because she participated in a committment ceremony for two woman friends. So it's not enough to be conservative you have to be the right kind of conservative.

And from Gubinatorial candidate Jim Barnett, let's play fast and loose that great game where you score points based on how many gullible voters you can sway with a lie, or to be diplomatic, whooper of an untruth:

The Lawrence Journal World reports:

The Republican said: “We should not be giving in-state tuition when we have servicemen and servicewomen serving this country and their children are paying out-of-state tuition rates when we provide in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. The governor has supported that. I oppose that.”

One minor problem: the statement about in-state tuition and servicemen and women is wrong. And of course we have illegal immigrants sneakin' across the Oklahoma border just to come to KU.

Lest I be accused of being biased, here is one that involves a Democrat as reported in the Journal World again:

A legislator has been charged with scuffling with a protester dressed as a cockroach during a gubernatorial debate last month.

Rep. Vaughn Flora, D-Topeka, faces a single count of battery stemming from his alleged contact with an anti-abortion protester during a political debate between Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and her Republican challenger, Sen. Jim Barnett. A pretrial hearing is set for Nov. 21 in Reno County District Court.

The protesters were dressed as cockroaches with pictures of Sebelius. The tie in between roaches, abortion and the Governor? Operation Rescue claims to have found roaches in an abortion clinic and is upset with the Guv for opposing stricter regulation of abortion clinics. Now I see why Flora was upset, but the roaches must have been great street theater!

Image from:

Abbie Hoffman would be proud!

Who's an Elitist?

Well Steve Abrams the Chairman of the Kansas Board of Education is at it again, making life easy for us bloggers who have too much going on in our lives right now to do any serious blogging. His latest antic is to charge that Kansas Governor Sebelius is an elitist.

He is quoted in the Lawrence Journal World today as saying:

But that is typical for an elitist, thinking they know better than the voters...The governor has yet to talk about her vision for Kansas; she apparently prefers innuendo, name calling, deflection of responsibility and an attempt for a power grab.

What upset him? Well two things. First the Governor had the temerity to state that both the State Board of Education and Fred Phelps are both bad for the State's image. Personally I think she's spot on here. The second thing is that she has proposed to reduce the power of the Board to merely an advisory capacity with primary and secondary education issues currently handled by the Board in the hands of a cabinet secretary as are most other state functions.

Abrams responds in a predictible fashion:

The governor owes the Kansas State Board of Education as well as the
citizens of the state of Kansas an apology...Personal insults from this liberal governor are the only arguments she can make due to the lack of her own accomplishments.

So who is the elitist here: the Governor who wants to get the Kansas focused on education rather than providing an avenue for fundamentalists to espouse voodoo in the science class room, or Steve Abrams whose fundamentalist world view says we unsaved types are going to Hell while Steve and his cronies get all the perks of an eternity in heaven?

Sounds to me like the answer is obvious.

Other links:

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Code phrases

Recently evolution has been injected into some Kansas political races. For example according to the Lawrence Journal World the Republican candidate for governor said:

The science standards allowed for the opportunity for people, for children
across the state, to ask, ‘How did we get here?’” he said after the debate. “I essentially support the idea that children should be presented facts, different sides of the issue, and then they can use critical thinking skills and make up their own minds.

Uh uh. Maybe it's because I am currently reading Richard Dawkin's the God
in preperation for his talk this Monday at the University of Kansas and some of his miltant atheism is rubbing off onto my theistic beliefs,
or maybe I am losing patience with these sorts of comments from politicians, but
I see these sorts of comments as code worlds for fundamentalism. Quite frankly I
will never vote for a politician no matter how well meaning they might be other
wise be. Either that person is a fundamentalist or without meaning to is
providing cover for fundamentalists.

Or consider Ben Hodge who is
running for the 49th Kansas House district who said the following during the
primary according to the Johnson
County Sun

QUESTION: Should public schools be allowed to teach intelligent design in
science classes?
Hodge: Yes. Required by the state - no. If a local school
board (or a teacher) wishes to teach intelligent design, then this should be
allowed. ...

Or dig his response to aquestion from the Kansas City Star in July:

Should alternatives to the theory of evolution - like intelligent design or
creationism - be taught in public science classrooms?
I support leaving these decisions to the local school district. When I am a parent, I will support
such teaching.

What is worse, from my perspective, is that Hodge is on my College's Board of Directors.

I know how Barnett and Hodge will respond to my comments: We only want to foster critical thinking. Sure, that's the same kind of critical thinking that has led Steve Abrams current chair of the Kansas State Board of Education to be a young earth creationist. Doesn't sound like the sort of critical thinking my school wants to promote!

Oh, did I mention Hodge is running in the 49th Kansas House district?

Listen to those code phrases and vote.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Dissing Rachel Carson?

The World Health Organization has reversed its opposition to using DDT for controlling Malaria arguing that recent scientific evidence suggests that indoor spraying of DDT is a useful prevention measure that does not lead to significant health risk with proper use.

See this NY Times report, and this more in depth and balanced report also from the times.

What is interesting and perhaps not too surprising is the response of many right wing writers, for instance Linda Makson over at Frontpage Magazine. She comments that:

"A pandemic is slaughtering millions, mostly children and pregnant women -- one child every 15 seconds; 3 million people annually; and over 100 million people since 1972 --but there are no protestors clogging the streets or media stories about this tragedy. These deaths can be laid at the doorstep of author Rachel's Carson. Her bestselling book Silent Spring detailed the alleged "dangers" of the pesticide DDT, which had practically eliminated malaria."

And quoting another expert:

""Carson and those who joined her in the crusade against DDT have contributed to millions of preventable deaths. Used responsibly, DDT can be quite safe for man and the environment," Koenig said, summing up what many infectious disease experts believe. "

Others have charged that Carson out and out lied.

But is Rachel Carson really to blame for millions of preventable deaths? What's going on here that one of the founders of environmentalism is today getting dissed?

Some of Carson's opponents claim that Malaria mosquitoes have not developed resistance to DDT, but the development of resistant strains is one reason for the decline in use of DDT, at least in India. More importantly, according to a major review of the Malaria situation in Africa it is a lack of political will that seems to be the problem, rather than any issue with DDT.

Further, according to an article in, Malaria's increase is due more to poverty rather than the banning of DDT. An article in The Nation concurs and further observes in contrast the claims of Carson's critics that:

"The second problem is that the world did try to wipe out malaria using DDT. That campaign, launched by the WHO in 1955, eradicated malaria from a few marginal areas in Southern Europe and a couple of islands. But in places where malaria reigned supreme, it failed miserably. That isn't because they didn't have enough DDT but because the stuff stopped working. Malarial mosquitoes resistant to DDT cousin Dieldrin emerged in Nigeria as early as 1955. Malarial mosquitoes in Venezuela had learned to simply avoid DDT-sprayed walls and bite people outside by 1957. By 1972, when the United States finally banned DDT, nineteen species of malarial mosquitoes had already become impervious to the toxin."
Carson's critics berate her for claiming that DDT is carcinogenic. Here they may have a point on the surface. There does not seem to be evidence that DDT is a potent carcinogen, as concluded in this recent article. But one has to judge Carson's message in the context of its times, when we did not have good information about carcinogens. What was clear is that the persistent breakdown products of DDT can and do spread through ecosystems and build up in fatty tissues. Indeed animals including humans do seem to have good defenses against both natural and man made chemicals. But given the well known carcinogenic nature of many chlorinated hydrocarbons, Carson's warning about DDT seems warranted given what was known at the time. Indeed chlorinated and brominated hydrocarbons are some of the most potent carcinogens known.

Further DDT appears to be an endocrine disrupter at least in some organisms, something that was not known to Carson. Furthermore levels of DDT in some animals such as sea lions are above the levels known to cause endocrine disruption and endocrine disruption appears to be at least one of the ways that DDT and related chemicals cause egg shell thinning in birds, something Carson's opponents deny happens, based on outdated 1970's studies. See this review.

So what's going on here? Seems to me that jumping on Rachel Carson is a political move from certain freemarket conservatives, whose antipathy to the environmental movement is well known. For instance some of the harshest critiques of Carson are found at the site Junk science. This site is largely the product of Steven Milloy who just happens to be on the receiving end of money from Phillip Morris. The Junk Science site has been heavily criticized as not really being about junk science. . See this criticism from the Skeptic's Dictionary which says of Milloy:

He describes junk science as "bad science used to further a special agenda." Those who employ junk science, according to Milloy, are the media who want to advance their own and their employers' social and political agendas; personal injury lawyers extorting deep-pocket businesses; the "food police," environmental extremists and gun-control advocates; government regulators who want to expand their authority and increase their budgets; businesses who bad-mouth competitors' products or make bogus claims about their own products; politicians who try to curry favor with special interest groups or be "politically correct"; scientists seeking fame and fortune; and ill individuals who use junk science to blame others for causing their illness.
Ah ha! We should have known! The deaths of millions of people due to Malaria is because of liberal pinko gun control advocates. Picking on Rachel Carson sounds to me eerily like the right's vilification of Charles Darwin. Should DDT be used in Malaria control? Perhaps it should, but to blame Rachel Carson for the deaths of millions inspite of ample evidence is grossly irresponsible.

More sympathetic viewpoints on Rachel Carson include this one by TR Hawkins in Environ Health Perspect. 1994 Jun-–Jul; 102(6-7): 536-–537. He observes that criticism of Carson about the carcinogenicity of DDT is really a diversionary tactic since she was concerned about so much more than that. Hawkins notes in particular:

The persistence of Silent Spring as an
environmental touchstone has been its
accuracy in predicting emergent issues.
Early response to Carson's book centered
on concerns about effects on wildlife and,
in human terms, on environmentally
mediated cancer. But Carson specifically
mentions human reproductive effects as a
possible disease endpoint for environmental
exposures, an area of concern that is just
now receiving greater scientific attention.

Carson clearly does not bear any blame for the persistence of Malaria, which is due to factors unrelated to DDT use, and her warnings were NOT out of line with what was known or suspected at the time. Carson did not oppose all use of pesticides, but rather opposed the excessive and improper use of pesticides. These chemicals do not target specific pests and it is there that lies the danger. I wonder if her opponents would be singing the same tune today if we still had the sort of lax approach to pesticides such as DDT, and did not get Carson's warning to develop better regulation and less persistent pesticides. I wonder if Milloy and his allies really want to go back to the bad old days of pesticide wild wild west.

Other links:,05534.cfm

This is another Milloy article that claims that global warming is alarmist and the the same anti DDT people are responsible for this alarm. See the Competitive Enterprise Institute's site for their political stance on a range of issues. To be fair many of there ideas are fine in terms of providing incentives for conservation. For instance I am no fan of ethanol production and neither is the CEI.

Other Links:

a balanced look at Carson and her legacy.

The Wikipedia entry on Rachel Carson is reasonably balanced and has some useful links.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Interview over at Genetics and Health

Hop on over to Genetics and Health where Hsien Hsien Lei has an interview with me about genetics and the state of science blogging. Not exactly like getting the Nobel prize, but I am still honored that she felt that I was note worthy enough to interview. Thanks Hsien!

And no, I didn't wear this hat while doing the interview...though if you don't agree with what I say there you might think it appropriate.

Nobel prizes in science announced...

Check out for the 2006 Nobel prize announcements and tutorials. Each recipient is linked to their lab home page so you can visit them directly, something I strongly recommend.

Both the medicine and chemistry prizes relate directly to genetics. First, Andrew Fire and Craig Mello have been honored with the Nobel prize for medicine for their discovery of RNA interference and explanation for how it works. RNA interference is both a defense mechanism against double stranded RNA, but it is also used by cells to regulate gene expression by providing a way to turn certain genes off. Also synthetic double stranded RNAs may provide a way to control certain genes related to certain diseases, such as cancer. At the very least, the ability to turn off genes at will has provided a new tool for understanding how genes interact with each other. A brief tutorial on RNA interference is at the Noble site.

Next, the Nobel prize in chemistry has gone to Roger Kornberg for his detailed studies of how RNA polymerase catalyses transcription of RNA from DNA. His studies enable us see exactly transcription works at the atomic level. It is interesting to remember that Dr. Kornberg's father, Arthur Kornberg shared the Nobel prize in medicine with Serveo Ochoa in 1959 for studying the enzyme involved in DNA replication, DNA polymerase.

The physics prize has gone to John Mather and George Smoot for their studies of the cosmic background radiation left over from the origin of the Universe in the so called big bang. Their work has taken cosmology from a speculative to an empirical and testable science, and, by testing predictions made by modern cosmology, destroys for ever the naive notion that historical sciences cannot be tested.

All of these prizes significantly extend our understanding of the Universe and show that in spite of the antiscience attitudes that have gripped parts of the world including my own state of Kansas, science is still alive and well and investigating questions relating to very small scales of time and space as well as to vast stretches of time and space.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Mendel's Garden #7 is out!

Mendels Garden #7 is over at Ouroborus

So be sure to check it out. Also our host for the mid October Mendel's Garden #8 will be Sandra Porter over at Discovering Biology in a Digital World.

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