Getting involved with the Texas SBOE

The Texas State Board of Education is reviewing its high school science curriculum standards this year. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) are the embodiment of those standards. These standards are important because they have a profound influence on how science is taught in Texas, including impacting textbook content. Because many other states adopt Texas standards and textbooks, TEKS can have a big impact across the country for a number of years. The stakes are high. Fortunately, there are a number of ways that concerned citizens can participate in the review process.

A draft of the TEKS was released on September 22nd and I have reviewed the Biology TEKS. Although I’m not a biologist, I certainly am familiar with how the creationist culture warriors might try to sabotage the standard. While all science TEKS have the suspect phrase, “Science may not answer all questions,” the standard looks pretty good with respect to evolution. There is no taint of the old “strengths and weaknesses” wording that they had slipped in in the past, opening the door for casting doubt on evolution and thus leaving the door ajar for “intelligent Design” pseudoscience that is just religion in a lab coat.

Unfortunately, the SBOE has been stacked with creationist members with a not-so-hidden agenda of sabotaging the teaching of evolution. More recently, the SBOE has appointed a creationist-friendly review committee to review the science TEKS. It’s not clear what mischief will come of these developments, but many science advocates are concerned and watching.

A number of groups have gotten involved by drafting reports, crating petitions, and marshaling concerned citizens. The National Center for Science Education is monitoring these culture war skirmishes from across the nation. The 21st Century Science Coalition is a group of scientists who have weighed in with a petition to the SBOE. The Texas Citizens for Science have monitored the board, specifically the political firing of Science Director Chris Comer. The Texas Freedom Network has done a great job of monitoring the SBOE and organizing citizen actions in response.

Concerned individuals can get involved in a number of ways. If you’re interested in monitoring the situation, signing a petition, or testifying in front of the SBOE on November 19th, TFN can help you. Consider doing all three. These things are serious grassroots activism for the cause of science education. Testifying may sound like a lot of work, but it’s a great experience that will allow you to express your perspective as a taxpayer and as a Texan. Usually testimonies are just a few minutes—just long enough to make a point or two. You’ll be doing it along side other concerned activists who will be there with you making a difference.
It is also possible to review the TEKS standards online and submit comments directly to the board. This is another great way to participate. To do this, go to the Science TEKS page and read the relevant portion of the “High School science” TEKS. You will then get the “High School Courses” form and fill in your comments. There are multiple ways of submitting the form. You will submit one form for each science course TEKS you would like to respond to. If you do this, please remember to follow the instructions and make your comments relate to specific sections of the TEKS. Be assertive, but polite.

The ACA would like to encourage all people interested in the quality of science education to participate in this important process for the betterment of our country and our futures or consider donating to these groups that are making a difference.

(See also Martin’s earlier blog post on the hearing.)

The heat is on Dunbar

Cynthia Dunbar took a pounding today on the editorial pages of the usually staid Austin-American Statesman, in a blistering piece that rightfully excoriates her as “an embarrassment who has brought heaping amounts of ridicule to this state,” and “a disgrace to public education and an embarrassment to Texas.”

But on top of her utterly asinine remarks about President-elect Obama (which, to the surprise of no one, were published by Brannon Howse’s home for wayward congenital idiots, the Christian Worldview Network), we’ve been concerned about her ilk for a long time. She is one of the fundamentalist faction on the State Board of Education, and is responsible for putting two fellow idiots from the Discovery Institute in positions of authority to “review” science education standards for the state. A purer example of putting foxes in charge of the henhouse you could not find.

Stephen Meyer’s and Ralph Seelke’s appointments also carry the taint of conflict of interest, as they are authors of the Discotute’s new anti-evolution “textbook,” Exploring Evolution. This is the book intended to replace Of Pandas and People. It has bleached its pages of anything that could be considered ID-promoting lawsuit bait, but still repeats the same bogus claims about evolution the DI has always been making. And Dunbar has been instrumental in machinating this latest assault on science education. As the Statesman editorial also notes, Dunbar “lists herself as an anatomy teacher but won’t tell even the Texas Education Agency at which school she teaches.” Is it any surprise that ideologues can get elected in a neoconservative political climate and freely lie about their own professional qualifications?

There has to be some way to oust this despicable fool from her position on a board she has no business serving coffee to, let alone serving on. I strongly encourage anyone who can to sign up to speak on the 19th. And send a polite but strongly worded letter (or fax or phone call) to Governor Perry demanding he condemn Dunbar for her anti-Obama remarks. (She will, of course, defend herself by waving the flag of free speech, but as so many neocons don’t realize, free speech includes both your right to say stupid shit, and everyone else’s right to nuke you for it.) Dunbar may be the kind of beyond-the-pale ideologue who blossoms rather than shrinks under the heat of scrutiny. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t feel the heat all the time. We all should make the loss of this woman’s job our mission.

Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428, Austin, Texas 78711
Phone: (512) 463-2000
Fax: (512) 463-1849

Schadenfreude!

Yes, there was a blemish on last night, which is that Christian Hate gets to crow about at least one victory. I am a little baffled about the Californians this morning. After all, they managed to deliver the state pretty handily for Obama, giving him no less than 61% of the popular vote there. So how they could have folded to fundamentalist fear so completely on the same night is rather strange. Still, I hope that this is just the beginning of Supreme Court challenges. There’s simply no room for this in an enlightened culture. And an enlightened culture is what I’m sincerely hoping America may start slouching towards during the next (being optimistic here) eight years of the Obama presidency.

But for now, I thought, for schadenfreude purposes, we’d take a look at a little of the morning-after whining from the fundie camp in response to the election. My oh my, I do believe it’s time to call the waaaambulance!

From the American “Family” Association, Donald Wildmon’s homophobic hate club, we get some advice for Christians: “Defend Life, Prepare for Persecution.” Since there’s nothing these people love more than to feel “persecuted,” I expect this is, perversely, good news for them.

[Tony] Perkins says Christians should pray for and return to a biblical model of holiness and righteousness. And believers in America, he adds, should prepare for persecution.

“We are going to see, I think, unprecedented attacks against our faith through measures like the hate crimes [legislation] to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” he says. “We’re going to see attacks on innocent human life through the Freedom of Choice Act, trying to erase all the gains that have been made in the pro-life movement. And I think even our freedoms are going to come under attack.”

Obama stated during the presidential campaign that one of his top priorities upon taking office would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act. Perkins says Christians will have to be resolute in defense of what they know to be right.

Hate, fear, ignorance and bigotry, of course, being the top four items on that list of what they “know to be right.” It’s amazing how upset they get when they’re told, by civilized, decent people, that it really isn’t nice to hate those different from you and that you should try to be more compassionate and tolerant. Those are two concepts just not in their lexicon.

Over at that delightful nuthouse, the Christian Worldview Network, columnist Jan Markell reveals another problem they have with Obama: they worry that he’s unfair competition for Jesus!

Two years ago came a charismatic man named Barack Obama who was engulfed in a cult-like atmosphere. Some actually called him “the messiah.” Shrines were built to him. A Web site said, “Obama is god.” There has been a messianic fervor, adoration and a worship-like atmosphere surrounding him. At some rallies people fainted at the sight of him. Young children recorded on YouTube sang songs to him stating he would change the world…

Well, Jan, if you’re actually worried that our president-elect is actually competition that the son of God has to worry about, sounds as if you aren’t giving your God enough credit, eh? Anyway, the above is all followed up by the usual butt-ignorant whining about “socialism.”

And of course, over at the WorldNutDaily, that repository of all things most ludicrous and histrionic that erupt from the crusty bowels of the extremist right, they couldn’t resist this headline:

Hamas praises Obama win as ‘historic victory for world’
Terrorists drafting letter of congrats to be sent directly to president-elect

I’m sure there’s more of this hysteria out there, and if you want to dig it up, please be my guest. Meanwhile, I’m going to sit back, eat myself a heaping slice of schadenfreude pie (thanks for the recipe, Scalzi), with a side of schadenfreude cobbler and washed down with a big old extra-fattening schadenfreude milkshake. Yum!

One big victory

I can’t really describe how I feel right now, my joy that the nation has taken, at long last, a whopping big fat sanity pill. No, I don’t see Barack Obama as some messianic figure come to save us all. But I do see him not as simply the lesser of two evils, but as a truly engaged and intelligent statesman who does in fact care about this country; who is determined to get us on track to a workable plan for withdrawal from the quagmire of Vietnam II, aka Iraq; who isn’t going to stack the Supreme Court with right-wing ideologues who would wipe away church-state separation as McCain most certainly would have done; who supports science instead of wanting to gut it. Who will restore to America the goodwill of the world, which we had disgracefully lost under the egregious and arrogant leadership of Bush and Cheney.

Cleaning up the last eight years of disaster is a tall order, and I truly hope he’s up to it. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll post more of my thoughts and reflections in greater detail. For now, I just want to rock out.

Oh yes. I understand that Liddy Dole, who ran that grotesque and sickening hate campaign in which atheists were her villains of choice against her opponent Kay Hagan has lost.

Bad news from California though. The forces of Christian Hate seem to be headed to victory. As of this writing, with 5% of precincts reporting in, the “yes” votes on Proposition 8 are ahead by 58.4%. Still, it’s early days yet on that one. Fingers crossed.

Vote, for no-God’s sake

In a blatant effort to throw around the weight of this blog’s popularity, which is greater than that of my own blog, I’m going to repost something I wrote in February about why you, yes YOU, should vote today. In the spirit of bipartisanship I’ve decided to cut the more blatantly pro-Obama material that I wrote at the time, but you know I’m thinking it. :)

If you need to ask — I voted Thursday, with my six year old son enthusiastically in tow.

It happens every four years at about this time: some people (and I won’t name names here) start proudly announcing the fact that they don’t see any point in voting. Why? Well, a variety of reasons, generally including several of these points:

  1. No candidate has exactly what I’m looking for. I don’t respect any of them, and I conscientiously refuse to vote for someone whom I don’t respect.
  2. The two candidates both suck. I won’t vote for the lesser of two evils.
  3. If I refuse to vote, then maybe politicians will get the message that they should offer better candidates, because there aren’t any that I can get behind now.
  4. One person’s vote is so inconsequential that I have a greater chance of being struck by lightning on election day than I have of personally affecting the outcome of the election.

I’m going to hit each of these points in turn.

1. No candidate has exactly what I’m looking for. I don’t respect any of them, and I conscientiously refuse to vote for someone whom I don’t respect.

As Donald Rumsfeld might have said, “You go to the polls with the candidates you have, not the candidates you might want or wish to have.” Let’s say you’ve decided to sit out every election until you finally encounter the candidate who’s a left-handed green-eyed atheist libertarian who will institute the flat tax and can sing classical opera. I can guarantee you that you, my friend, will be sitting out every election of your entire life.

But let’s say a candidate finally comes along who’s a right-handed green-eyed agnostic libertarian who will institute some kinds of tax reforms (not the exact ones you want) and plays the tuba. And let’s say the other guy in the race is, hmmm, Fred Phelps. Are you really telling me that you’re going to sit out on principle because you only like southpaws?

There are a lot of people in the world who could be running for president, but only a few of them are. The stronger you make your qualifications that are required to get your vote, the more you are guaranteed to be disenfranchised from the process. Which brings me to…

2. The two candidates both suck. I won’t vote for the lesser of two evils.

Oh, I see. Then you won’t mind if the greater of two evils wins. Suppose you’ve been kidnapped and imprisoned by a sadistic dictator, and he gives a choice between being punched once in the face or being slowly and painfully flayed alive for four hours. Would you say “Ah, who cares? Both things are evil, so either way I’ll get hurt. Pick whichever one you want.” I don’t know about you, but in that situation I’d be saying “Punch me in the face, please!”

In the first place, I don’t buy the fact that both candidates are evil. Like committing to a lifelong relationship with a person of the opposite sex (or same, if that’s your thing), I guarantee that you will never find a person who is without flaws. When confronted with these flaws, you can either say “Sorry, imperfect match detected; no votes for you” or you can take the bad with the good and pick the person who is clearly the best available, warts and all.

In the second place, even if both candidates represent a net dislike for you, that still doesn’t mean that your choice is irrelevant. Again, do you want to get punched once or flayed for hours? Easy choice: pick the outcome which is best for me.

3. If I refuse to vote, or write in “Mickey Mouse” on my ballot, then maybe politicians will get the message that they should offer better candidates, because there aren’t any that I can get behind now.

Yes, of course they will. And then everybody will magically receive a million dollars and a pony from the sky.

Look, I hate to say this, but a vote is not a treatise on the state of our nation. If you want to send a message, start a blog. A friend of mine likes to say that voting has very low bandwidth: each person gets to transmit only one bit every four years. There’s not a lot to resolve there about what your vote “means.”

Most people in this country don’t vote most of the time. There are countless reasons why somebody might not vote. Maybe all the candidates are too liberal. Maybe all the candidates are too conservative. Maybe the voter only supports left-handed green-eyed atheist libertarian candidates who will institute the flat tax and can sing classical opera. Or maybe the voters just couldn’t muster the energy to get off their lazy asses and transmit their one bit this year.

When you’re looking at election results, do you hear those messages? No. The ONLY information transmitted in the election is: “X voters voted, one candidate won by Y percentage points.” That’s it. Maybe you get more information out of news coverage and interviews, but that is true regardless of whether people vote or not.

If the greater of two evils wins, what’s the strongest message that got sent? “Most people prefer this candidate to the other one. He must have done something right.” Then, guess what happens four years later? Both candidates try to be more like the guy who won. Over time, the landscape drifts in the direction that people push it. Not voting, and even voting for somebody that you already know isn’t going to win, rarely has an effect other than that of bolstering the person who wins.

4. One person’s vote is so inconsequential that I have a greater chance of being struck by lightning on election day than I have of personally affecting the outcome of the election.

Sure. This one is true. But there’s a significant fallacy involved.

Clearly there is little chance that the margin of victory will be a single vote, so the chance that YOUR vote is going to make the difference is very, very remote. Conceivably if you just stayed home on election day and didn’t mention it, your influence on the election would be pretty much invisible.

But that’s not all that people do when they announce “I’m not voting because my vote doesn’t matter.” They’re not only choosing not to vote; they’re also proclaiming that not voting is a better option. In doing so, they are, to some extent, influencing others who might agree with their own positions to do the same. And by convincing like minds to also not vote, this is spreading a “don’t vote” meme across a broad population. The act of not voting may not influence the outcome, but the meme certainly does.

This isn’t an academic issue; the use of memes that say “do vote” or “don’t vote” has been used very effectively by special interest groups. For instance, one of the reasons that the religious right has been so successful at gaining disproportionate influence in government is that they have organized communication channels, mailing lists and church announcements and such, which mobilize their congregants to vote. This is a big message that DJ Groethe of the Center for Inquiry drove home for me once, showing materials such as Mind Siege, which end-times crackpot Tim LaHaye uses to frighten fundamentalists into voting (and also sen
ding money). The basic message is that if YOU PERSONALLY don’t take action IN THIS ELECTION, then the fags will make gay marriage mandatory for everyone and the evilutionists will jail all dissenters.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t the truth. But the effect that this message has is very real. And likewise, sending the inverse message to people — that voting is stupid and a waste of time — ALSO has a genuine effect on overall turnout. Memes have a ripple effect. Maybe your vote won’t sway the election, and maybe your message about not voting won’t sway the election either. But people who are persuaded not to vote also have this tendency of replicating the meme and encouraging other people not to vote.

So, in fact, I choose to believe that my attitude about voting — in addition to my vote — makes a difference. It’s a straight up Prisoner’s Dilemma decision: “cooperate” and vote for the best alternative you can locate, even if it’s inconvenient, or “defect” and stay home. Though your vote may not count, everyone who agrees with you and stays home will practically translate to one half of a vote for whoever they believe to be the worst candidate.

On the other hand, few things delight me more than hearing somebody whose position I disagree with say “I don’t think I’m voting in this election.” Sure, I’d prefer that they decide to vote for my candidate instead, but given that a complete reversal is a semi-rare event, I want to encourage them to continue “protesting” the opposing candidate by not voting for him. “Go, dude!” I say. “Keep registering that protest and not voting! Refuse to vote for your former party because because the candidate is not a crazy enough apocalyptic dominionist! That’ll show those jerks who’s boss! And if necessary, I hope you continue to not vote for as long as it takes, even if it’s your whole life, until you get exactly what you want.”

So in conclusion, don’t just vote: convince those with whom you agree to vote. And make sure that the people with whom you disagree are good and surly about their candidates this year.

Testify at the SBOE hearings

Yesterday on the TV show I mentioned that as soon as I confirmed the info about signing up to testify at the SBOE hearings, I’d post it here. So here you are.

Despite the defeatist attitude from some people that I criticized heavily yesterday, it is vital that the pro-science contingency deliver a massive turnout of voices. Certainly, McLeroy and the other brain-dead creotards on the board won’t be swayed. But according to the TFN, there are two potential fence-sitters, who have in the past voted with the conservatives, but whose votes are not necessarily assured on this matter. As the TFN says, the fundies have declared open war on science here, and have made the weakening of evolution education a priority. They need to know just how much opposition there is to their idiocy, and they need to hear it from as many of you as can take the 19th of November off. Adjust your schedules accordingly and be there. Like, it’s only the edumacation of a entire generashun that’s at risk here.