Creationism in Texas: “One of the worst situations that I’ve ever seen.”

Last night I attended the meeting sponsored by the tireless folks at CFI-Austin, “Will Texas Support 21st Century Science Education?” I arrived a little early and bumped into Matt Dillahunty. Soon I was glad I hadn’t walked in the door ten minutes later than I actually did. The room filled up quickly, soon swelling to SRO status and quite possibly violating fire codes. I did a quick head count and stopped at 60, guesstimating about 20 more faces buried in the back of the crowd I couldn’t fully see.

The enormous turnout was heartening for many reasons, not the least of which is that when the forces of ignorance and scientific illiteracy begin their campaign to dismantle science education in Texas this year, they’re going to meet with some organized and vocal opposition quite prepared to humiliate them in their efforts every step of the way. The Christian Right may have a stranglehold on politics in this state. But as their ill-advised firing of Chris Comer, a bit of local political shenanigans that quickly became an international outrage once word got out through the intertubes, illustrated, when they try to mess with the realities of science, the real world is not so accommodating to their ideologies.

Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science was first to speak. Schafersman has spent 27 years on the front lines fighting creationists in their attempts to infiltrate schools, so he’s seen firsthand just how much creationism has evolved in that time. But he described the current situation in Texas as “one of the worst situations that I’ve ever seen.”

As many of you may not know, Texas has long been what’s called an “adoption state” in terms of how textbooks are chosen for public schools. A small group of people in state politics chooses all the textbooks for the entire state. (Many states let each individual school board choose.) In Texas, the selection process had long been influenced by a fundamentalist Christian couple, Mel and Norma Gabler. The Gablers ran roughshod over every textbook submitted for approval, demanding deletions to evolution in biology texts, deletions to information about contraception in health texts, and other things. Censorship of textbooks in Texas got so bad that a number of textbook publishers would simply release “Texas editions” of their books. The idea that religious ideologues can effectively censor students’ access to knowledge is chilling, to say the least.

Mel Gabler died in 2004, Norma last summer. With their passing, fundie whitewashing of textbooks stopped, though the selection process is still mired in politics. The pro-science community succeeded in thwarting the efforts of creationists and their well-funded leaders at the Discovery Institute in 2003 — a process that several ACA members including Kazim and myself participated in directly — but failed in 2004 when health texts came up for review, with the result that teenagers in this state are still not getting health texts informing them of the proper use of contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancy and STD’s. Hey, what’s a few dead kids as long as you’re standing up for Jebus, eh?

Here’s why the situation for science is so dire right now. Science standards are coming up for review later this year, and right now, the State Board of Education is not only run by a YEC, but out of the SBOE’s fifteen members, seven of them are YEC’s. Schafersman has described them as “very aggressive” and certain to make a set of standards that has already been graded an “F” even worse. (This was done by the Fordham Institute, a conservative organization, interestingly enough, but not one with a fundamentalist agenda.)

Chris Comer’s firing in 2007 was part of an effort to purge pro-science individuals from positions of influence in Texas education. The whole thing of sacking her based on supposed insubordination and bad performance was just their little dog and pony show. The real goal is to remove anyone who has anything nice to say about evolution — let alone anyone who recognizes it as the foundational principle underlying all biology — from the rolls.

Now this part is important: Right now the fundies are running some fundie wingnut against Patricia Hardy, a non-fundamentalist, non-creationist Republican. If Hardy loses to this person, then the YEC’s will flip to a majority on the SBOE and every schoolchild in Texas will be assured of a 19th century education. In other words, they’ll be fuct, and Texas will become as bad a laughingstock as Kansas was a few years back.

What about the Democrats, you ask? Who are they running? Well, no one. Apparently the Democratic party in Texas doesn’t care about the SBOE, preferring to devote its efforts toward the legislature. So that means there’s no outright progressive, solidly pro-science candidate to vote for. The best we have is a moderate Republican. But that’s better than nothing, I imagine.

Anyway, Schafersman reiterated that there is a “great deal of apprehension about what’s going to happen this year.” How exactly are the creos going to strike? Well, ID has failed stupendously, despite the efforts and the millions spent by Discovery. After Dover, even Dan McLeroy, the cretinous YEC dentist who heads up the SBOE (and who I remember seemed to think he was onto something at the 2003 textbook hearings by constantly asking UT biology professors if evolution was as well-supported by scientific evidence as gravity), is careful openly to acknowledge the lack of support ID has from the scientific community, and that it is thus inappropriate to teach.

But this is simply McLeroy’s (and the rest of the YEC’s) grinning Cheshire Cat face for the media. The agenda now is to demand that the “weaknesses” of scientific theories like evolution must be discussed in classrooms. You know, fair and balanced and all that. This is bogus for several reasons, not the least of which is that the things the creos trumpet as “weaknesses” — Jonathan Wells’ foolish “icons of evolution”; Behe’s broken record about “irreducible complexity” — aren’t “weaknesses” at all for evolution. They’re merely made-up hand-waving nonsense the creos throw out to impress the scientifically illiterate. Also, while the idea of addressing “weaknesses” in scientific theories is, in principle, supposed to be applied to all fields of science, when the rubber meets the road, it’s only evolution that finds itself under the weight of that demand. Hypocritical much? Why yes. But these are creationists. What do you expect? Integrity? Honesty? Knowledge? Ha.

Remember, these are not people who care about knowledge. These are people desperately attempting to protect a bronze age religion from the modern ideas and scientific facts that defy its magical claims. Their whole lives are rooted in the desperate belief that there’s a god willing and eager to grant them eternal life, and if this belief is debunked, then they’re doomed to plunge into a whirlpool of existential despair and hopelessness they probably cannot escape. So if it’s a choice between understanding science and hanging on to the hope they’ll never die, they’ll pick the latter, thank you. They’re the modern day equivalent of the people who imprisoned Galileo and murdered Giordano Bruno, and make no mistake about it.

More shenanigans from the “Goddidit” crowd involve the Institute for Creation Research attempting to get accreditation in Texas so they can offer master’s degrees in science education here. They’d been trying to do the whole process under the table, with the help of creationist sympathizers in the Texas GOP. Once Texas Citizens for Science got wind of what they were up to and made it pub
lic, things have been a little bit rougher for the ICR’s efforts. Right now, the hearing to determine what to do about the ICR’s application has been pushed back from January 24 to April 24. We’ll be following this closely.

Schafersman then introduced Chris Comer, who got a huge round of applause for being, in effect, evolution’s first “martyr” in Texas. Chris didn’t and couldn’t say much, as Schafersman had cautioned us there could be litigation pending concerning her firing, and so Comer was under orders from her lawyers not to take questions about the firing itself. (Good, I hope she takes the assholes to the cleaners and leaves them there naked.) But Comer did tell us that the “forces at play here are huge” and that the whole situation concerning science education in Texas is “far worse than I ever, ever dreamed it would be.” As an indicator of just how thin the ice is on which we’re all skating: there is an end-of-course biology test, currently optional, that will be required of all Texas students as of 2012. Last month there was an attempt to remove all references to evolution from this test, and it almost worked.

Schafersman told us all that, unlike Dover, where fed-up citizens finally got their own back by voting out all of the creationist idiots from their school board after the trial that had damaged their community was over, in Texas it will be harder to rely on the electoral process alone to fix the SBOE. Once again, the Christian Right controls the GOP here (mavericks like Hardy notwithstanding), and the Democrats don’t want to play. So the key to saving science — and saving students — in Texas will be grassroots movements that constantly shine a light on what the creos try to pull whenever they try to pull it. Comer’s firing was met by unanimous condemnation in newspaper editorials not merely throughout Texas, but the whole country and overseas as well. By keeping this kind of attention on creationism’s sneaky BS, pro-science Texas citizens can ensure that science education in Texas does not fall victim to a religious auto-da-fé anytime soon.

If you want to keep up with this (and you want to keep up with this), bookmark the Texas Citizens for Science page as well as the Texas Freedom Network’s Stand Up for Science campaign.

A final note. During the lengthy Q&A, a high school teacher whose name I didn’t catch made an interesting point. Whatever goes on with the textbooks, it was his experience that students didn’t really read their textbooks anyway. What with the internet able to provide all sorts of information to students directly, regardless of whether it’s been vetted by Christian Right ideologues, wouldn’t it be an easy thing for science teachers simply to encourage students to visit such sites as the Talk Origins archive, the Panda’s Thumb, and others, to get the lowdown on the down low about real science? It was a neat idea, and certainly a fun suggestion of the way teachers can rebel if education standards are in fact undermined as badly as the creationists want them to be. I think teachers should do this anyway…but we still have to keep up the fight, and keep it as bloody as it needs to be.

Addendum, Monday: If you’re one of the folks who’s popped over from Pharyngula, welcome…and please Digg this article to spread awareness of what’s going on in Texas. Thanks.

Why hasn’t Uwe Boll thought of this?

Worried that your movie is going to tank in the wake of unavoidable, relentless mockery and abuse? Just pay people to see it anyway!

The latest news making the rounds of science blogs is the remarkable revelation that the producers of Expelled, the farcical ID faux-documentary soon to be released and hosted by the foolish Ben Stein, have come up with a campaign essentially to bribe Christian schools to take entire classes on “mandatory field trips” to see this hokum. Let us marvel at religion’s great contribution to science education in America: pulling a bunch of kids out of classes, filling their little heads with disinformation, and raking in the bucks.

You really have to read all about this stunning campaign here. It means this movie is less likely to be profitable than it already was — the idea is these Christian schools send in the ticket stubs, paid for by the students, and the more stubs they send in the more money gets donated to the school, up to $5000 for 500 stubs. That’s $10 per ticket stub, which is right around the full ticket price for a movie in a lot of big cities, and far more for the average ticket in the kinds of Bible Belt small towns where this movie is likely to be well received. (My parents go to the movies in Marshall, TX, population about 25,000; they pay $3 to see movies at the one theater there.)

What’s also hilarious is the way this movie is openly defying the Discovery Institute mantra that ID is not religious, no ma’am! Seems to me the next Dover trial ought to be even easier, since the record of this online campaign will be right out there in the open, calling attention to itself like a streaker at a football game, for the pro-science side to destroy them with. It’s even better than Barbara Forrest’s brilliant tracking down of the absurdist publishing history of Of Pandas and People, which gave us all that masterpiece of Christian copy editing, “cdesign proponentsists.”

Frankly, the more bullshit like this the anti-evolutionists pull, the better things are in terms of exposing their mendacity and dishonesty. Come on, these people really think they’re morally superior? The lack of moral integrity in their every action is repugnant and depressing. When it isn’t merely hilarious.

Ten (plus) things I’ve done you probably haven’t

Scalzi started this, damn him, so I’m now caught up in the meme. Nothing especially atheisty, but entertaining all the same. What are yours?

  1. Attended a Beduin Arab wedding in the middle of the desert in the UAE.
  2. Driven round and round Loch Ness with my family looking for the monster, to no avail. (Stupid monster.)
  3. Met XTC.
  4. Sailed first class on the QE2 from Southampton to New York.
  5. Sailed on the Persian Gulf in a fishing dhow.
  6. Spent ten years as a comic book artist.
  7. Hung out with Billy Bob Thornton at his rented house during shooting of The Alamo.
  8. Been an assistant director on several independent films.
  9. Hung out with Ron Livingston in the backyard of a house during one of those film shoots, while his fiancee Lisa Sheridan did scenes inside.
  10. Worked as a driver on the most recent season of The Bachelor.
  11. Met Terry Gilliam in the 80’s while still in film school, where he came to talk about the controversy surrounding the just-released Brazil.
  12. Cockblocked Nic Cage. (Details by request only.)
  13. Played with a leopard cub.
  14. Married a topless dancer. Then divorced her.
  15. Hosted an atheist TV show.

I was going to add “Hung out with Quentin Tarantino,” but then realized that probably two-thirds of Austin has done that, so I left it off.

Next Wednesday in Austin: Chris Comer at Texas Citizens for Science meeting

From the Texas Citizens for Science website:

Forthcoming Appearance: 2008 January 16 – “Will Texas Support 21st Century Science Education? A Briefing by Texas Citizens for Science”

Time and Location: Wednesday evening, January 16, 7:00 p.m., Mangia Pizza-Mesa location, 8012 Mesa Drive, Austin, Texas. Maps are available here and here. There is no charge, and you can buy all the pizza you want.

Texas Citizens for Science President Steven Schafersman will discuss the mounting threats to science education in Texas. He will cover the forthcoming revision of Texas K-12 science standards, the forced resignation of Chris Comer from the Texas Education Agency, and the effort by the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research to obtain Texas certification to grant masters degrees in science education. After the briefing there will be a Q&A session and open discussion. Chris Comer will also be on hand to answer questions about science education in Texas.

I’ll certainly be there, and not just for the pizza. This will be the year the supporters of science are going to face continued histrionic attacks on quality education from well-financed creationist groups out to protect their Bronze Age myths at all costs. Florida also seems to be a state where the forces of organized ignorance are rattling their swizzle sticks. Despite the fairly comprehensive defeat ID suffered in Dover, they just aren’t getting the message. That’s what people are like when they think they can play “choose your own reality,” I suppose. If this matters to you at all — and it should, for it will go a long way towards deciding America’s relevance as a leader in science and innovation in the 21st century — turn up. Plus, Mangia’s pizza is the shiz.

Oh no, not again

Today in the news:

A mother who is suspected of killing her four children, whose decomposing bodies were found in her home, appeared in court Thursday.

Banita Jacks, 33…told police that her daughters were possessed by demons and that each died in her sleep during a seven- to 10-day period, court documents said. Aja died first, she told police, then N’kiah, Tatianna and Brittany.

Okay, I know it’s simplistic simply to blame religion in situations like this. You can make the same post hoc fallacy people make when they blame violent video games for school shootings, or porno magazines for rape. In the case of the wacko who killed and cooked his girlfriend a few days ago, and then told the cops God ordered him to do it, it’s obvious he was trying to appear as crazy as possible so as to cop a sanity plea when his case goes to trial. There are cases of clearly religiously inspired violence, such as 9/11, gay-bashing incidents, the killing of abortion providers, excessive corporal punishment of children bordering on child abuse, the ongoing Arab/Israeli conflict, tribal violence in Kenya and the Sudan, Catholic/Protestant violence in Northern Ireland, and more.

Then there are cases where a lunatic does something loony, and, surprise, is found to have kooky religious beliefs as well. Kooky religious beliefs and kooks do go together well.

A case like this leans toward the latter, but still, I don’t think religion can get off the hook entirely. Religion is the only thing out there that encourages people to believe in absurdities like demonic possession. It’s bad enough that literally millions of people have their critical thinking faculties short circuited by the teachings of religion, and thus fail to know how to protect themselves from religious hucksters selling their snake oil. But add religion into an environment where mental illness is latent, and it’s a recipe for unmitigated catastrophe. While the mental illness is ultimately the cause of this woman’s actions, religion only enhanced its severity, rather than helping her to overcome it.

Science, on the other hand, has made great strides in treating mental illness. There’s nothing in the article to indicate Banita Jacks was on any medication for any psychological disorder. But clearly she should have been. Had she been, this might not have happened. But by putting her faith in her religion, what happened? She believed her babies were possessed by demons, and butchered them. Religion can’t always be blamed for the bad things people do. But I see precious few examples of its actually doing anything to help or prevent such tragedies either.

If you’re running a con, go for the richest mark you can!

The fad of Kabbalah mysticism, that seems to have conned nearly as many Tinseltown hangers-on as Scientology, has such a transparently silly racket that, because it’s so obviously stupid and fraudulent, it’s no wonder some of the richest and most high-profile celebutards are falling for it. MSNBC reports that Madonna, who popularized warding off evil spirits with a few inches of red twine around your wrist, is now spending $10,000 a month on “specially blessed” Kabbalah water! Yoiks! I always thought most bottled water was a big scam (a suspicion long-since confirmed), but to spend as much money in a month on the stuff as someone with a serious cocaine habit really makes me cringe at the way fate (or whatever) always seems to dictate that the people with the most money in our world are those with the fewest brains.

Maybe I’m just in the wrong business. Damn these morals of mine! They keep me from slicing into the lucrative religion pie.

Pitching in to help P-Momma

I’m a little behind the curve here, but scanning some blogs I haven’t visited in a couple of weeks, I learned that Possummomma, everyone’s favorite atheist in a minivan, has lupus. And it’s really messing with her lately, making her so sensitive to sunlight that even walking around her house gives her a hard time due to UVs bouncing all over the place. Over at his blog, Berlzebub has taken it upon himself to set up a Paypal donation thing so that P-Momma’s family can afford to get UV-filtering films, which are naturally expensive as hell, installed on her windows. So far donations have been pretty good, so I thought I’d let AE readers join the charity if they see fit. Here is the link to Berlzebub’s blog’s donations-tag page, where you can get up to speed on everything.

It should come as no surprise that some Christian bitch called Heather has leapt upon this situation as an excuse to troll P-Momma’s blog with snarky and insulting comments. I guess that’s what comes from being morally superior to everybody, eh?

More faux-intellectualism: the appeal to other ways of knowing

In this comments thread, we’ve been visited once again by Rhology, who says:

I don’t agree that God is unprovable or unproven. Not provable by naturalistic means, of course, but there’s no reason to restrict ourselves to solely naturalistic means.

What, exactly, are the “non-naturalistic” means that Rho proposes? How do they work? What are their methodologies? Can one use them to test a falsifiable hypothesis and formulate a theory which has predictive power? Rho seems to imply this, since his statement suggests God’s existence can thereby be (and actually has been) proven. But if you’re looking for a real explanation of how to go about seeking knowledge using “non-naturalistic means,” then Rho will disappoint you.

This is the appeal to other ways of knowing, a common bit of hand-waving employed not just by religionists, but practitioners of all manner of woo. Skeptico has also written about this. And I hate to say it, but it seems to be a view that not only has traction amongst the anti-science clods you’d expect, but among people in the scientific community who should know better, usually in a misguided attempt at offering a sop to the ignorant in the belief that those people would simply be too scared of the threat science poses to their precious belief of choice unless the olive branch of appeasement is offered.

Case in point: the National Academy of Sciences has just released a booklet for the lay reader (you can download the whole thing as a free PDF) spelling out the case for evolution and against ID in a very clear, accessible, and commendable way. But the book makes the concessions to religion that has caused guys like PZ Myers and Larry Moran to roll their eyes. “Science and Religion Offer Different Ways of Understanding the World,” trumpets one chapter heading. But they don’t. Not even remotely. Science offers ways of understanding the world, religion offers supernatural beliefs in place of understanding, which actively impede many people’s ability to achieve understanding. It really is a big blemish in an otherwise scientifically sound book. Then again, if the way in which this “different way of understanding” actually works, and how its conclusions can be determined to be just as epistemologically valid as those of science, were actually explained in detail, then I’d happily sing a different tune. But no, we just get the assertion that a “different,” “non-naturalistic” means of examining truth claims exists, and that it’s better, and that anyone who tries to rebut this is simply “making excuses” for science’s own presumed failings. That’s religion for you. No evidence is ever needed, only that whose existence conveniently resides in some “non-naturalistic” realm only discernible to those who have thrown off materialism’s presumptions.