The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘court’

Science & Skepticism Triumph in the New Jersey Courts

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 29, 2011

It’s not often spoken of, but I think perhaps one of the most critical reasons why it is that we need to have a populace that is well educated in basic critical thinking and reasoning skills can be summed up in how our court system works.  In the United States, many trials in court are decided by juries, which are composed of everyday folk like you and me.  And, as is sometimes the case, juries that are tasked with making major decisions – such as in murder cases – can all-too-often fall victim to sloppy thinking.  And, unfortunately, sometimes this sloppy thinking is actively encouraged by rules set by the courts themselves!

However, recently there as a welcome challenge to the status quo: the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued new guidelines and regulations for how to take into account the validity of eyewitness testimony and the fallibility of human memory regarding identification.  Read the following article from The Innocence Project for more information…

New Jersey Supreme Court Issues Landmark Decision Mandating Major Changes in the Way Courts Handle Identification Procedures

Today the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a landmark decision requiring major changes in the way courts are required to evaluate identification evidence at trial and how they should instruct juries.  The new changes, designed to reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions by taking into account more than 30 years of scientific research on eyewitness identification and memory, require courts to greatly expand the factors that courts and juries should consider in assessing the risk of misidentification. …

… The court’s decision requires judges to more thoroughly scrutinize the police identification procedures and many other variables that affect an eyewitness identification. The court noted that this more extensive scrutiny will require enhanced jury instructions on factors that increase the risk of misidentification. These factors include:

• Whether the lineup procedure was administered “double blind,” meaning that the officer who administers the lineup is unaware who the suspect is and the witness is told that the officer doesn’t know.
• Whether the witness was told that the suspect may not be in the lineup and that they need not make a choice.
• Whether the police avoided providing the witness with feedback that would cause the witness to believe he or she selected the correct suspect.  Similarly, whether the police recorded the witnesses’ level of confidence at the time of the identification.
• Whether the witness had multiple opportunities to view the same person, which would make it more likely for the witness to choose this person as the suspect.
• Whether the witness was under a high level of stress.
• Whether a weapon was used, especially if the crime was of short duration.
• How much time the witness had to observe the event.
• How far the witness was from the perpetrator and what the lighting conditions were.
• Whether the witness possessed characteristics that would make it harder to make an identification, such as age of the witness and influence of alcohol or drugs.
• Whether the perpetrator possessed characteristics that would make it harder to make an identification.  Was he or she wearing a disguise?  Did the suspect have different facial features at the time of the identification?
• The length of time between the crime and identification.
• Whether the case involved cross-racial identification.

Folks, this is a big deal, because there is a mountain of strongly-supported research which shows just how untrustworthy and malleable memories can be and how this can lead to all manner of mistakes regarding the positive identification of suspects in court cases.  For example, take a look at some of the work done by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus on this subject of the misinformation effect and false memories.

Th main point here that I want to emphasize is that the new Jersey Supreme Court took a huge step in the right direction by relying on the most well-tested science to guide its decision.  And that is important, because science – more than any other human endeavor – has allowed us to collectively sort out the good ideas from the bad ideas regarding how the world works.  And how the world works includes how we, as fallible beings, interact with it and each other.

In closing, I want to emphasize my point about critical thinking in the courts, and specifically in the jury box and deliberation room, by encouraging you to watch one of the best movies ever on the subject: 12 Angry Men.  The original was made in 1957, but it was remade in 1997, and I think either version is excellent viewing.  If you have never seen either version, take some time to check them out on Youtube or rent them, because I can only hope that every jury in the world is as rational as this one…

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The Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin Responds… And Fails

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 2, 2011

I found out recently that Casey Luskin of the intelligent design/creationist “think” tank the Discovery Institute has  responded in print to my takedown of his public lecture last August in Chicago.   I think it is important is to dissect his arguments and point out the utter failure of him to make any headway in his arguments; he is simply recycling the same ol’ same ol’, in my view.  For reference, here is my account of what happened at the event last August.

Me & Casey Luskin, chillin’ after his lecture.  Nobody was hurt in the making of this photo 🙂

And I also wrote a follow-up post specifically criticizing Luskin’s claims of the supposed scientific nature of ID’s so-called “design inference”. It is pretty telling that Luskin never addresses any of these points in his response, but more on that later.

Speaking of which, here is Luskin’s response. Technically, it isn’t really a response to my blog posts, because he never references my blog or the posts in his article, but he does refer to me and the questions I asked at his lecture (though he doesn’t name me).  Allow me to go through his points one at a time…

STUMPED BY DESIGN

ID’s Critics Engage in Motive-Mongering to Avoid the Evidence

By Casey Luskin

In August 2010, the creators of Salvo graciously invited me to speak at the University Club in downtown Chicago. After a short 40 minute presentation on the positive scientific case for intelligent design (ID), we opened up the floor to the audience.

Most of the inquiries led to serious and worthwhile scientific discussions. But one gentleman [that’s me] was confident he came armed with a “gotcha question” that would stump me. His challenge essentially boiled down to this: What about the ‘Wedge Document’?

The Wedge What?

Salvo readers generally believe—quite rightly—that seeking truth requires merely following the evidence where it leads. As a result, they don’t get bogged down in endless debates about personal motives or the religious (or non-religious) beliefs of scientists. At the end of the day, what matters is the evidence. Right?

For many ID critics, that’s not right. In fact those who follow the ID debate closely are depressingly familiar with the fallacious distraction of the “wedge document.”

While the “Wedge document” has no bearing on whether the information-rich molecular machines that underlie every living cell point to an intelligent designer, it’s worth rebutting to help those who are seeking truth understand this debate.

What is now called the “Wedge document” was originally a short fundraising packet compiled in the late 1990s by the pro-ID think tank Discovery Institute (“DI”). Like any good prospectus, it laid out the goals of the DI, centering around using pro-ID arguments to influence various branches of culture, including science, politics, education, and theology. …

Actually, the Wedge Document (and related strategy) is entirely relevant to the entire question of ID and its origins as an explicitly religious enterprise.  That’s because, as I documented earlier & as Luskin fails to note (surprise), during his lecture he stated on multiple occasions that “ID isn’t about religion, it’s about science!”  So when I pointed out the fact that the Discovery Institute’s Wedge Document most certainly shows that the primary motivation for pushing ID is religious in nature (with such notable sections as the “20 Year Goal: To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.” – yup, that’s a direct quote, entirely within context.  Read it for yourself), Luskin was hoisted by his own petard, so to speak.  In fact, I had a conversation with one of the other audience members in the lobby of the University Club after Luskin’s lecture, and while this fellow wanted to agree with Luskin, he simply couldn’t because of exactly what I’d pointed out.

What was Luskin’s reaction to my criticism?  Well, the next section of his article pretty much spells it out.  Read on… Read the rest of this entry »

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Majority of U.S. Biology Teachers Don’t Teach Evolution Adequately

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 7, 2011

Sometimes science supporters lament some very stubborn statistics, specifically those regarding the public acceptance of evolutionary science in the United States.  Rather consistently, for many decades, the number of people in the U.S. who are outright ignorant or mistrustful of evolutionary science hovers at around the 40-45% mark, with most of those identifying as Young-Earth creationists (i.e. those who believe the Earth is ~10,000 years old as espoused by certain Biblical interpretations).  Fortunately, recent research has shown this number slowly declining, but it is a really slow decline.

And many times, those of us in the pro-science crowd have wondered why it is that, despite amazing advances in evolutionary science and defeat after defeat for creationism in the federal courts, this blatant ignorance of (or outright animosity towards) evolution still exists to such a large degree?  Well, some recent survey research may provide some clue as to an answer, and it – sadly – involves the nation’s teachers…

13% of H.S. Biology Teachers Advocate Creationism in Class

The majority of high-school biology teachers don’t take a solid stance on evolution with their students, mostly to avoid conflicts, and fewer than 30 percent of teachers take an adamant pro-evolutionary stance on the topic, a new study finds. Also, 13 percent of these teachers advocate creationism in their classrooms.

“The survey left space for [the teachers] to share their experiences. That’s where we picked up a lot of a sense about how they play to the test and tell students they can figure it out for themselves,” Michael Berkman, co-author of the study with Penn State University colleague Eric Plutzer, told Livescience. “Our general sense is they lack the knowledge and confidence to go in there and teach evolution, which makes them risk-averse.” …

So it seems that part of the problem is that many biology teachers themselves are not adequately prepared to teach about evolution.  However, this is a problem which can (and should) be corrected by making adjustments to the university curriculum & training for prospective biology teachers, giving them (well, the 87% who are NOT creationist) the appropriate skills & training in the subject matter.  Unfortunately, there seems to be a deeper problem: that of intimidation, either explicit or implicit, of biology teachers who actually want to teach evolution…

Read the rest of this entry »

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Dover vs. Kitzmiller Decision is Five Years Old!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2010

Five years ago, on Dec. 20th, 2005, one of the most influential court rulings regarding the evolution & creationism battles in the public schools came down – it was the Dover vs. Kitzmiller decision, and it was a devastating blow to the intelligent design movement (IDM). The IDM had been making some serious inroads in various venues in the early part of the decade, and this court case was seen as a critical tipping point as to whether or not ID-creationism would pass muster in public school science classes.  Fortunately, it lost and lost badly 🙂

So, happy birthday Dover vs. Kitzmiller!  In case you’re interested in seeing where things stand five years on, as well as hearing from some of the key players in the case, check out this article…

After 5 years, Dover intelligent design ruling’s impact still felt

Tammy Kitzmiller’s family jokingly refers to Dec. 20 as “Kitzmas.”

Five years ago on that day, U.S. Middle District Judge John E. Jones III handed down a 139-page ruling on her eponymous case, Kitzmiller v. Dover.

The case made Kitzmiller — and Dover — world famous in a legal battle versus Dover Area school board on whether intelligent design could be taught as an accepted scientific theory.

The battle ended with Jones banning Dover schools from ever enforcing an intelligent design policy and ruled intelligent design is religion, not science. …

Interestingly, some recent polling from Gallup seems to indicate that within recent years fewer Americans are accepting creationism and more are accepting the science of evolution as an explanation for the development of life:

Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, while 16%, up slightly from years past, believe humans developed over millions of years, without God’s involvement.

Folks, I think this is welcome improvement – nearly 55% of Americans accept some form of evolution (theistic or atheistic) while only about 40% accept creationism.  That latter number is still too high, in my opinion, but things look like they’re heading in the right direction, and I like to think that the Dover vs. Kitzmiller decision had at least a little something to do with that.

The entire Gallup poll can be accessed here. Nice to see that on Dover vs. Kitzmiller’s fifth birthday we have something to celebrate 🙂

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Creationist Lawsuit to Force Universities to Accept Their Curriculum Ends at the Supreme Court

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 19, 2010

Here is some excellent news, folks!  In a twist of reality that was almost weirder than fiction, back in 2005 a group called The Association of Christian Schools International filed a lawsuit against the university system of California because they claimed that the university system violated the constitutional rights of applicants from Christian schools whose high school coursework is deemed inadequate preparation for college.  In other words, the Christian school coursework was pushing creationism as science (and not teaching evolution), and the university system said that was inadequate preparation and refused to accept the “science” credits of those students.

Aside: one can easily see the slippery slope here.  If creationists were to get away with this kind of malarkey, then how long until New Age gurus demand that their quantum flapdoodle nonsense be accepted as “physics” credits for universities?

Well, it all came to the end of the line recently for the creationists in this case, because a few days ago the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case, essentially locking in lower court decisions against the creationists 🙂

Read more about it from the National Center for Science Education…

The end of ACSI v. Stearns

On October 12, 2010, the Supreme Court declined (PDF, p. 12) to review Association of Christian Schools International et al. v. Roman Stearns et al., thus bringing the case to a definitive end. The case, originally filed in federal court in Los Angeles on August 25, 2005, centered on the University of California system’s policies and statements relevant to evaluating the qualifications of applicants for admission. The plaintiffs — the Association of Christian Schools International, the Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, California, and a handful of students at the school — charged that the university system violated the constitutional rights of applicants from Christian schools whose high school coursework is deemed inadequate preparation for college.

Creationism was prominent in the case. The plaintiffs objected to the university system’s policy of rejecting high school biology courses that use creationist textbooks as “inconsistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community.” Michael Behe, a proponent of “intelligent design” creationism, served as a scientific expert witness for the plaintiffs, although his defense of the creationist biology textbooks was unavailing. Wendell Bird, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, is a former employee of the Institute for Creation Research; he defended Louisiana’s 1981 “equal time” act all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was ruled to violate the Establishment Clause in the decision in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987).

Relying in part on the view of defendants’ expert witnesses Donald Kennedy and Francisco J. Ayala (a Supporter of NCSE) that the creationist textbooks were not appropriate for use in a college preparatory biology course, the trial judge in ACSI v. Stearns granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on August 8, 2008. The plaintiffs appealed the decision, but in a January 12, 2010, ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, which is now reaffirmed by the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case. Documents from the case are available on NCSE’s website, in a special section devoted to ACSI v. Stearns.

Expect to hear the creationists moan on and on about “activist judges” and “religious discrimination” and similar goofiness.  While I relish this admittedly important victory in the courts, I am not going to fool myself that these folks will simply go away quietly – they’ll be back, with another frivolous lawsuit or some other angle to attempt to tear down good science education.  So keep your eyes & ears open…

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ID’s Next Strategy in the Evolution/Creationism Wars?

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 10, 2010

A little over a week ago, I gave a presentation to the Illinois North Shore chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church & State about the lecture I attended in August by Casey Luskin of the intelligent designcreationist think tank called the Discovery Institute. Specifically, my presentation, titled “ID’s Next Strategy in the Evolution/Creationism Wars?” was a rebuttal to the various points made by Luskin and the intelligent design movement in general.  I recorded the audio of my talk, and I’d like to share it with you here.  Enjoy!

Click here for the audio of my presentation –

Rebuttal to Luskin ID-talk

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My Challenge to the Discovery Institute’s “Design Inference” Model

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 7, 2010

In an earlier blog post, I gave a detailed rebuttal to a lecture by the Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin titled “Intelligent Design: Dead Science or the Future of Biology?” – however, it wasn’t until recently that I came up with what I consider to be the real killer criticism of a basic intelligent design argument: their so-called “design inference” model. During his talk, Casey Luskin showed a picture of Mount Rushmore, which he stated the design inference model shows is clearly a product of ID, not the result of natural processes.  The implication is, of course, that much of evolutionary science is false because ID’s design inference model can prove that ID is a better explanation; but there’s a fatal flaw here.

The basic argument is simply a variation of the classic watchmaker argument, which is essentially an argument from ignorance. Not to mention, Luskin has stacked the deck in favor of the ID design inference model because every time an ID-advocate trots out their model it is in the context of a post-hoc analysis: they already know ahead of time that the object/situation they’re analyzing is the product of intelligent (human) processes.  Hell, of course Mount Rushmore is the result of (human) ID, because we have records & photos of humans chipping away at the damn rock!  So they can’t lose – in this sense, the ID folks are proposing a non-falsifiable model, which makes it NON-science.

Read the rest of this entry »

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U.S. Appeals Court Finds No Link Between Vaccines & Autism

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 28, 2010

I’m on a vaccine kick lately, probably because of my involvement through the Women Thinking Free Foundation & Skepchick’s work to bring a free vaccine clinic to Dragon*Con 2010. I’ll provide more details about that, as well as the launch of the Hug Me – I’m Vaccinated! campaign, later this week.  For now, I just wanted to share with you my thoughts about an epic win in court for science & evidence-based medicine 🙂

No link between vaccines and autism, appeals court rules

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID
updated 8/27/2010 6:07:09 PM ET

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a ruling that vaccines are not to blame for autism.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a decision last year by a special vaccine court, which concluded there’s little if any evidence to support claims of a vaccine-autism link.

Scientist years ago reached that conclusion, but more than 5,500 families sought compensation through the government’s Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

Friday’s ruling came in the case of Michelle Cedillo of Yuma, Ariz., who is disabled with autism, inflammatory bowel disease and other disorders that her parents blame on a measles vaccine given at 15 months.

In the 2009 ruling Special Master Denise Vowell wrote that the evidence “is weak, contradictory and unpersuasive. Sadly, the petitioners in this litigation have been the victims of bad science conducted to support litigation rather than to advance medical and scientific understanding” of autism.

In its ruling Friday the appeals panel said “we have carefully reviewed the decision of the special master and we find that it is rationally supported by the evidence, well-articulated, and reasonable. We, therefore, affirm the denial of the Cedillos’ petition for compensation.”

Earlier this year the so-called vaccine court also concluded that the additive thimerosal is not to blame for autism, an added setback in a long-running battle by parents convinced there is a connection.

The decisions help to offer reassurance to parents scared about vaccinating their babies because of a small but vocal anti-vaccine movement. Some vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles, are on the rise.

I have no doubt that the hard core anti-vaccinationists, like Jenny McCarthy, will just spin this as some kind of conspiracy theory about how the courts are in the pocket of Big Pharma, and so on.  I know that no amount of logic or evidence will convince those who have gone way down the anti-vax rabbit hole, but hopefully the news will convince those on the fence.

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My Thoughts on Attending Casey Luskin’s Intelligent Design Talk at the University Club of Chicago

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 20, 2010

This past Tuesday, I attended a talk by Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute at the University Club of Chicago.  Attending this talk with me was Jamie Bernstein (her post on the event is located over at the Friendly Atheist blog) – we were both very curious to see what Luskin had to say on the topic of intelligent design (ID), which is essentially another form of creationism.

The event was a casual luncheon, and I must profess that the people gathered there were quite pleasant.  After Jamie & I seated ourselves and started our meals, the group (which numbered approximately 30 in total) held an invocation (appropriate, considering as how the St. James Fellowship and Salvo Magazine – both Christian organizations – sponsored the event).  It was at this time that Jamie & I felt a wee bit self-conscious, because we had started our meals before the prayer while everyone else was waiting – oops.  But no one made a big deal out of it, for which I was thankful.

After awhile the talk got underway.  I did my best to transcribe the talk on my computer, and I will include the notes I took below – all of my specific after-the-fact commentary will be in bolded italics

Me and Casey Luskin (right) after his talk – though we butted heads (more on that below) during his presentation, we agreed that it wasn’t necessary to get out the boxing gloves 🙂

Intelligent Design: Dead Science or Future of Biology?

talk by Casey Luskin (M.S., J.D., ESQ) of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture

at the Fellowship of St. James, University Club of Chicago

Read the rest of this entry »

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Institute for Creation Research Loses Texas Lawsuit Over “Master’s” Degree in Creation Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 23, 2010

In a bit of good news from our friends at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), it appears that the young-earth creationist organization called the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) has lost its court battle in Texas against the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board.  Apparently, ICR was suing the Board for it refusing to recognize the ICR’s “Master’s” degree in science education.  If ICR had called it a Master’s degree in pseudoscience education, then perhaps things would have gone differently 😉

Anyway, read on for the full update from NCSE on this welcome development…

The Institute for Creation Research suffered a significant legal defeat in its lawsuit over the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board’s 2008 decision to deny the ICR’s request for a state certificate of authority to offer a master’s degree in science education from its graduate school. A June 18, 2010, ruling in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas found (PDF, p. 38) that “ICRGS [the Institute for Creation Research Graduate School] has not put forth evidence sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact with respect to any claim it brings. Thus, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on the totality of ICRGS’s claims against them in this lawsuit.”

As NCSE’s Glenn Branch explained in Reports of the NCSE, “When the Institute for Creation Research moved its headquarters from Santee, California, to Dallas, Texas, in June 2007, it expected to be able to continue offering a master’s degree in science education from its graduate school. … But the state’s scientific and educational leaders voiced their opposition, and at its April 24, 2008, meeting, the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board unanimously voted to deny the ICR’s request for a state certificate of authority to offer the degree.” Subsequently, the ICR appealed the decision, while also taking its case to the court of public opinion with a series of press releases and advertisements in Texas newspapers.

The issue was not, strictly speaking, about accreditation, but about temporary state certification, which would have enabled the ICR graduate school to operate while it sought accreditation. When in California, the ICR graduate school was accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which requires candidate institutions to affirm a list of Biblical Foundations, including “the divine work of non-evolutionary creation including persons in God’s image.” TRACS is not recognized by the state of Texas, however, and after the ICR moved from Santee, California, to Dallas, Texas, the ICR expressed its intention to seek accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Finally, the ICR filed suit against THECB in 2009, accusing it and its members of imposing “an unconstitutional and prejudicial burden against ICRGS’s academic freedom and religious liberties.” The prolix style of the ICR’s initial complaint — which the Dallas Observer (April 20, 2009) quipped “reads kind of like stereo instructions” — was apparently continued in its subsequent documents; the court complained, “It appears that although the Court has twice required Plaintiff to re-plead and set forth a short and plain statement of the relief requested, Plaintiff is entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering, and full of irrelevant information” (p. 12).

In summary, the ICR claimed that THECB’s actions violated its rights to free exercise, free speech, and equal protection, its rights to procedural and substantive due process, and its rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as that “Standard 12” — the civil regulation on which THECB’s decision was based (19 Texas Administrative Code sec. 7.4(14)) — was vague. The court found merit in none of these claims. With respect to the free exercise claim, for example, the court found that “the Board’s decision was rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest, and there is no evidence the decision was motivated by animus toward any religious viewpoint” (p. 24).

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