Intelligent Design ruled a pretext for religion in the classroom

In a decision which sets an important precedent for US science education, a court has ruled against the teaching of the theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ alongside Darwinian evolution (BBC, 20 December). The ruling comes after a group of parents in the Pennsylvania town of Dover had taken the school board to court for demanding biology classes not teach evolution as fact.

The 11 parents argued that teaching intelligent design (ID) was effectively teaching creationism, which is banned. They complained the theory — which argues life must have been helped to develop by an unseen power — is tantamount to religious education. The separation of Church and State is enshrined in the US constitution. The school board argued they had sought to improve science education by exposing pupils to alternatives to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

But Judge John Jones said he had determined that ID was not science and “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents”. In a 139-page written ruling, the judge said: “Our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.” He accused school board members of disguising their true motives for introducing the ID policy. “We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom,” he said. He banned any future implementation of the policy in Dover schools.

Ironically, the ruling is somewhat academic since parents there voted in November to replace the school board members who brought in the policy. That move provoked US TV evangelist Pat Robertson to warn the town was invoking the wrath of God.

Meanwhile in Kansas…

Opponents of evolution have won a big victory with the approval of new science standards for Kansas’ public schools (Arkansas City Traveller, 9 November).

The new standards say the theory that all life had a common origin has been challenged by fossil evidence and molecular biology. They also describe as controversial the theory that changes over time in one species can lead to another species. None of those statements were in Kansas’ previous standards, which treated the theories as well-established and universally accepted by scientists.

“This action is likely to be the playbook for creationism for the next several years,” said National Center for Science Education director Eugenie Scott. “We can predict this fight happening elsewhere.” “We’re becoming a laughing stock of not only the nation, but of the world, and I hate that,” said Kansas City Democrat Janet Waugh, who opposed the new standards.

Abductees ‘vulnerable to false memories’

Research in London suggests that people who claim to have been abducted by aliens have a higher tendency to hallucinate and fantasise than those who do not report such experiences (Dominion Post, 27 October). Prof Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College compared 19 ‘abductees’ and 19 random volunteers. He found that in psychological tests, so-called ‘experiencers’ scored more highly in a number of areas, including ‘dissociative’ tendencies which can lead to altered states of consciousness, and displayed ‘absorption’, the habit of becoming engrossed in experiences.

Like other paranormal experiences, such as encounters with ghosts, alien abduction was often associated with sleep paralysis, French said. In this state, sleepers woke to find themselves unable to move but aware of their surroundings. Dream-like auditory and visual hallucinations could also occur.

Scientists asked to explain ‘Buddha’

A Nepalese boy who some believe is an incarnation of Buddha has reportedly survived without food or drink for six months, but local authorities want to get to the bottom of the mystery (Dominion Post, 28 November). The district administrator in Bara, 150km southeast of Kathmandu, has asked a Buddhist panel and the Royal Nepal Academy of Science to investigate claims that 15-year-old Ram Bahadur Bamjon has survived so long without sustenance while meditating under a sacred pipal tree. He does not speak and people are not allowed to approach within 50 metres. At night he is hidden from public view behind a curtain. Doctors observing from a distance say he is breathing normally but is weak.

The Bermuda Triangle — 60 years on

December 5 2005 was the 60th anniversary of the disappearance of Flight 19, the event that began the myth of the Bermuda Triangle (Weekend Herald, 19 November). The 27 airmen who disappeared were honoured by the American government on November 19, in a gesture Representative Clay Shaw said he hoped would help to bring closure for surviving families.

The incident began when five US Navy Avenger airplanes left the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station on a routine training mission over the Bahamas. The five pilots and nine crewmen, led by Lieutenant Charles Taylor, were to practise strafing and low level bombing on small coral shoals 96.5km east of the station, then head north to practise mapping, before returning home. But the compasses on the lead plane apparently malfunctioned. With no instruments to guide him over the open ocean, Taylor thought the flight had drifted off course and was south over the Florida Keys. As a result, he directed the planes to fly north. “He was not in the Keys, he was out in the end of the Bahama chain,” said David White who, at the time, was a flight instructor at Fort Lauderdale. “When he went north, he was going out to the wide ocean.” A few hours later a navy rescue airplane, a Martin Mariner with 13 crewmen, also vanished. Though a passing ship reported seeing what could have been a mid-air explosion, no evidence of the Mariner was found either.

Miracle hoax claim angers church

September 20 marked another anniversary, the 1700th, of the martyrdom of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples (Dominion Post, 21 September). Three times each year, the faithful gather to witness the “miracle of the blood” in Naples Cathedral, in which a phial alleged to contain the dried blood of the saint is held aloft by the archbishop, who declares it has liquefied. The years when it fails to do so are said to presage disasters such as the eruption of Mt Vesuvius or the defeat of Napoli football club.

This year, however, astrophysicist Margherita Hack and fellow scientists from the Italian Association for the Study of the Paranormal have enraged many by claiming the miracle is a fake. “There is nothing mystical about this. You can make the so-called blood in your kitchen at home.”

Hack said the dark brown gel, which was solid but liquefied when shaken, was hydrated iron oxide, which had the characteristics of blood.

Pierluigi Sanfelice, one of the phial’s official guardians, said the church had conducted tests on it in the 1980s which showed that its contents included haemoglobin. “The trouble with scientists is that when they cannot find an explanation they invent one. They simply cannot accept that some things are beyond human understanding,” he said.

Fat-loss pills ‘dead loss’

An Auckland man and his company have been ordered to refund $175,000 after falsely claiming a tablet could “melt away” fat and cellulite (NZ Herald, 10 November). However, the refunds, which could benefit thousands of customers who bought Celluslim tablets, are on hold pending an appeal.

From 2002, Dennis Johnson O’Neill marketed Celluslim tablets through Martini Ltd, as a product that would get rid of fat and cellulite in just three weeks without dieting or exercise. Customers paid $168.80 for an eight-week supply of the tablets, but an Auckland District Court judge David Wilson QC said anyone who bought them was wasting money.

“The only evidence is that Celluslim could not reduce cellulite fat and weight and moreover made some customers feel unwell.”

An advertising brochure said Celluslim was scientifically developed and tested by Doctor Malissi at Switzerland’s Saint Alto Research Centre, but neither existed. At one stage, O’Neill and his company ran out of the tablets and relabelled a honey, garlic and apple cider vinegar tablet as Celluslim so they could continue to fill orders, the Commerce Commission said.

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