Come on, John Ensign…you’re not trying!

The latest hilarious story of a politician with a roving willy is that of Nevada Republican senator John Ensign, who has shamefacedly confessed to an extramarital affair. Like the disgraced Democratic New York governor Eliot Spitzer, Ensign is your garden variety moral hypocrite, with an extra special twist that makes the schadenfreude at his downfall especially delightful. Because, being a Republican, Ensign’s big bugaboo was the “threat” of gay marriage, and how it threatened to “weaken” traditional marriages like the one he was betraying. Among other things, Ensign was very vocal in his calling for Larry “Wide Stance” Craig to resign. Here’s Ensign on marriage catching teh gay.

“The effort to pass a constitutional amendment reaffirming marriage as being between a man and a woman only is being undertaken strictly as a defense of marriage against the attempt to redefine it and, in the process, weaken it,” Ensign said. “Marriage is an extremely important institution in this country and protecting it is, in my mind, worth the extraordinary step of amending our constitution.” [Emphasis added.]

Seems to me Ensign isn’t spinning this with the kind of gusto one expects from the right. I mean, hasn’t it occurred to him that he could parlay his philandering ways into proof of his anti-gay marriage thesis?

Clearly, what happened was that, when all these rainbow-flag waving liberals and spearchucking lesbians began demanding marriage equality, Ensign’s marriage was so “weakened,” that he just couldn’t stop himself from having an extramarital affair! If only gay marriage hadn’t become a political hot button topic, the marriages of healthy straight Christians like John Ensign, Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, and so very many others, would have been as towering in their strength as a Himalayan peak! Right. Right? So what more proof do you people need that we must stand unwavering against the threat of gay marriage, lest more heterosexuals fall victim to the monogamy-dampening effects of their gay rays.

What…you’re saying no one would buy it? Well, no, they wouldn’t, except for the inmates over at WorldNutDaily and the Christian Worldview Network. But my point is, heck, he could have at least tried, you know. Jeez, even Bill Clinton had the stones to come up with such artistically inventive rhetorical interpretive dance as “That depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” So come on, Sen. Ensign, step up! Haven’t we earned the right to expect at least that from our politicians?

Reflections on a lazy Sunday

Apparently the Christians had some big holiday today. I thought today would be a good day to gaze upon all the signs and wonders in this big wide world of ours and make an assessment of just how vividly their God is — um — making his presence known. Or not.

  1. Well, somebody must have pissed the Big G off in New Hampshire. While worshipers at the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center were celebrating Zombie Jesus, a fire broke out that eventually barbecued 52 of the center’s buildings. All I could think of here was, “They had 52 buildings? Whatever for?” Maybe God was wondering the same thing, and this little conflagration was by way of being a friendly suggestion they ought to consolidate. Or at least, add fire extinguishers to the budget next time.
  2. Now, here’s the kind of article one has to be careful with, because it can come across as making fun of death and misfortune, which I’d only ever do if the person in question was Ann Coulter or Garth Brooks. In this case, a retired priest in Pennsylvania plowed his car into a group of worshipers following a Good Friday service, killing one, 89-year-old Madeline Romell. My response to this is a combination of “Poor lady” and “What a dumbass!” Yes, I’m sure he’s horrified about the accident and all. But the elephant in the room no one’s discussing? Why, the fact that God did nothing to prevent this unnecessary tragedy, even something small and entirely within the skillset of an all-powerful being, like causing one of the car’s tires to blow out, or the fuel line to be clogged. Christians offer comfort to themselves by claiming God allows these kinds of tragedies as a way of sending us a message or teaching us some obscure lesson. What will they say it was in this case, I wonder? Stupid accident, some poor old woman dead, other people hurt, and all they’d been doing was praising you, God old boy. So, you know. WTF? Oh yes. You’re imaginary.
  3. And last but not least, our latest bout of criminal Christians, including the Sunday School teacher who has been arrested and accused of the murder of that 8-year-old girl in California, and the 42-year-old Focus on the Family employee charged in Colorado Springs with attempting to solicit sex online from what he thought was an adolescent girl, but was actually — what will they think of next!? — a cop posing as an adolescent girl! D’oh! Insert obligatory “Bubba’s bitch” jokes here. Funnily enough, this later arrest came on the day James Dobson was giving his organization his farewell address, bemoaning that the Christian Right had pretty much lost the “culture war” and that we were all “awash in sin.” Thing is, the “sin” he’s thinking of was not in reference to the actions of his own employee, but seems to be limited to Bill Clinton and the internet. Hell, if that’s all it took to beat you guys, you really weren’t trying. Then again, Jim, if, as you claim, “God is in control” still, then you might want to consider what that means for His opinion of you, considering your bleak admission of defeat, eh?

And in other news, Jesus and Generalissimo Francisco Franco are still dead.

Well, it’s nice to know she’s not nuts or anything

By now this story, about some pathetic cult member who has pled guilty to the starvation death of her infant son provided the charges are dropped once he comes back to life (a condition I imagine the DA’s office gleefully agreed to), has made the rounds. It would be easily to laugh at this kind of arch-stupid irrationality if it weren’t for the fact it claims the lives of innocent victims. Here’s a poor little kid who died because the adult charged with his care was a deluded idiot, in the thrall of similar deluded idiots. The cult she belonged to was something called “One Mind Ministries”. Replace “One” with “No” and you’re a little closer to the mark.

It’s also tempting to comfort yourself with the reassurance that, at least, this is the sort of thing that takes place in lunatic fringe cults, and fortunately mainstream religion, risible as it is, doesn’t go around killing and hurting its kids as much. This is the point where it’s helpful to be reminded of the tens of thousands of kids sexually molested by benign, trusted, avuncular Catholic priests, and the numerous cases of parents, not belonging to some wacko church obviously on the farthest of far-out fringes, arrested and charged with killing their kids by refusing to take them to doctors for easily treatable illnesses, preferring “faith” healing and prayer instead.

Unreason kills. Period. That one form of unreason happens to gain mainstream acceptance over others makes it no less an example of unreason, and no less dangerous. It’s time to deprogram, not just extremist nutjobs like Ria Ramkissoon, but the whole frackin’ human race from this insidious thing called religious faith.

Recent headline roundup

I’ve been away from the blog several days, but the slack has been more than capably taken up by the rest of the team. Thought I’d pop by with a quick post today with my observations on some recent events in the news and around the globe.


A: Nothing fails like prayer.

Just in is this report about the imprisonment of a Tunisian charter pilot in Italy. It seems that, instead of taking the proper emergency measures when his plane started going down, he chose to pray instead. Result: 16 dead. Now, Christians might gloat that this fellow was Muslim, and therefore this proves that Allah (who is just the Abrahamic God in a different outfit, but hey…) is a false God. And they would, of course, be ignoring all the times that their own prayers fail. But there’s an easy way to test this. The next time a Christian finds himself in an out-of-control aircraft plummeting towards a fiery doom, then he should simply pray. We’ll see how well he gets out of it.

B: He must be really counting on that “forgiveness” thing!

And here’s a hilarious piece about Baptist minister Henry L. Lyons, who is running for the presidency of a prominent organization of African-American Baptist churches. What’s the big deal? Well, only that ten years ago, he held that very position, only to be forced out of it when it was revealed he’d been embezzling millions from the org in order to support his luxury lifestyle, which included more than one mistress. Ah, that superior Christian morality! Can you get enough of it?

Anyway, it all went sour for Lyons when his wife twigged to his extramarital dalliances and burned down one of the homes he shared with a mistress. Go girl! Lyons was later convicted of racketeering and fraud and did some time. And now, he’s not only a pastor once again, he running for the same office he stole from! The man must need a wheelbarrow to carry around balls that big.

“I prefer building on the present and the future and being as positive as possible and really don’t want to go back to that era and talk about those negatives,” says Lyons. We’ll see if Baptist voters share his forward-looking positivity.

C: Reeeding iz hawrd!

In Dallas last weekend, an ambitious Christian Book Expo was held, with the goal of connecting “publishers and authors directly with readers in the evangelical Christian market.” I expect they overestimated the actual existence of readers in said market, because the expo was a dismal flop, drawing only 1,500 attendees. The hoped-for numbers were in the 15-20,000 range.

Well, is this such a surprise? After all, how many different updated Bible translations does one need? After all, the damn thing’s been translated into everything from hip-hop slang to LOLcat, so where else can you go after that? Klingon? And since everyone there has probably already slogged their way through the Left Behind saga, what’s the big draw? Oh well. Maybe they just weren’t promoting Ray Comfort’s new book enough?

D: Uh-oh! Is atheism vanquished?

It looks as if we have ironclad proof of God’s existence after all! I mean, I don’t what else you could possibly call this!


And a quick PS: Only 16 more T-shirt orders needed to get the second print run going. Thanks to all!

Obama’s first big screwup

Everyone is bitching about Barack Obama’s ill-advised choice to ask pop-pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. I agree. Bad move, bad choice, total pandering. Warren talks a moderate game, but his views are not basically less conservative than the more blustery evangelicals out there. Warren’s support of Proposition 8 (aka Proposition H8) in California last month sends a message to the gay community that this supposedly liberal new president may not necessarily be as friendly to their concerns as one might think.

I know that Obama and Warren likely don’t see eye to eye on every single issue, and gay rights may be one of those issues. But you know, the company you keep says a lot about you. You’d think Obama might have learned a lesson about dubious religious affiliations earlier this year, what with all the flap about Wright. But maybe not. This could just be show business and not an indicator of how Obama’s first term will play out in the big picture. But…it does seem as if Obama will bear watching. We shouldn’t take him for granted, as many of his supporters have done, as some great progressive “messiah” who will usher in a new golden age in America, not just yet.

The FFRF Christmas sign, and why it’s a bad atheist message

When you have an unpopular message, however confident you are that it is factual, it is important to know how best to deliver that message so that your audience, however predisposed they may be to agree or disagree with you, is receptive, willing to give you a fair hearing at the very least.

Some atheists make the argument that Christians will never give us a fair hearing at all, so there’s no reason not to be as rude and abrasive as possible. But this simply isn’t true. The God Delusion sat pretty on the New York Times bestseller list for a solid year. And while Dawkins is certainly vilified out of all proportion to what he says and does by indignant believers, the point is, the book has sold over a million and a half copies. They didn’t all go to atheists, obviously. Otherwise, every book about atheism would be as monstrous a seller. Whether they like it or not, believers are getting the message — via books like TGD and blogs and what have you — that there are a lot of atheists out there, and that we’re prepared to defend our views with a great deal of intellectual rigor.

And yet there are effective and appropriate means to deliver those views. I’m not a Malcolm X, “by any means necessary” atheist, because not all means work. And while it’s a good thing many times to be provocative, provocative isn’t necessarily the way to go at all times. Which leads us to the Christmas sign.

To recap events of the last week: the Freedom from Religion Foundation had a sign placed next to a nativity scene in front of the Washington State Capitol building in Olympia. (Let us, for the moment, blow off any tangential arguments about the church/state separation issues that may be involved there.) At some point on Friday it was ripped from the ground and found some miles away tossed in a ditch. “Ah ha,” sayeth the atheist blogosphere, “does this not prove how petty and small-minded and censorious those Christian thugs are? How thin skinned they are about allowing any belief contrary to their own in the public sphere?” Well, maybe, but then, let’s look at what the sign — which has been used by FFRF before — actually said, and remember that it was placed next to a traditional Christmas decoration.

At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail. There are no gods, no angels, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

That last sentence is an example of what is commonly called “overplaying your hand.”

Look, you won’t get any arguments from me about the truth content of the sign as a whole. But, mindful of the whole “time and place” concept, as well as the general mindset of the people (Christians) whom you intend to reach with the message…well, what they read when they read the last sentence is not necessarily what might have been intended by the FFRF. You see, they aren’t going to read that last sentence and think, “By golly, they’re right. How gullible and foolish I’ve been to shackle my mind to these ancient superstitions.” No, what the last sentence of the sign says to them is this.

Hey, Christian fucknuts. You know this Christmas thing you’re all into right about now? You know, that time of year where you gather together with your family, decorate the tree, put lights up around the house, sing carols, stuff yourself silly with yummy turkey and cranberry sauce, wrap presents while eagerly imagining the looks on your childrens’ faces when they unwrap them, then snuggle with your loved one under a comfy blanket before a roaring fire while sipping eggnog and reminiscing about Christmases past and how big the kids are getting? Yeah, you know, all that insect-brain three-hanky horsepuckey? Well, the reason you like all that is because you’re a gullible, hard-hearted, uneducated, dimwit FUCKTARD! So come on over to our side, where we don’t have any of that sentimental shit we just listed, but we do have the thin and feeble pseudo-satisfaction of looking down our noses at everyone we pretend to be better than.

Pretty much something like that, anyway.

Given that’s what the message says to them, is it any wonder it was ripped from the ground? Is it any wonder they nurture their persecution complexes? Is it any wonder they never lack for ammunition in their bleating about a “War on Christmas”?

In short, the sign is provocative when an atheist message delivered this time of year ought to be nothing but fluffy bunnies. That doesn’t mean watering down your atheism. It means putting it in a positive, humanitarian and humanist context. You know, that thing we mean when we refer on the TV show to “promoting positive atheism.”

The irony here is that the FFRF has gotten it right before, with their billboards that simply read “Imagine No Religion.” That is a message that simply seeks, in Dawkins’ words, to raise the consciousness of the reader. All it asks is, imagine a world without religion. The believer may do so and see nothing but a bleak, nightmare void. But that’s where the discussion can start and the consciousness-raising can begin in earnest. You see, signs need only the pithy consciousness-raising message. They should not try to encapsulate a detailed atheist worldview — the whole “religion is superstition and, really, isn’t it kind of silly for grown adults to believe in invisible magic men in the sky” thing — in a nutshell. Especially not in a venue where the received message will be, “What, you like Christmas? What kind of shithead are you anyway?”

“But Martin,” you say, “the FFRF is suing because the city had their harmless, inoffensive, ‘consciousness-raising’ billboard pulled down after two days! So positive atheist messages are no better, obviously!”

Yes they are, my little sprogs. Because while few people will blame Christians for tearing down a provocative atheist sign next to a nativity scene — and I’m sure the FFRF has been dismissed in a number of media outlets for simply pulling a publicity stunt — when they try to suppress truly inoffensive messages such as that on the billboard (or the even-less-offensive one that simply read “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.”) then they do look like reactionary, thin-skinned bullies, and it’s easier for atheists to claim the moral high ground and come across, even to some in theistic camps, as more sinned against than sinning.

So while it’s all fine for us to throw punches at religion in most of the forums available to us — our blogs and books and TV shows — when atheists make the choice to take the atheist message out to the general public on their turf (and yes yes, you can say “the Capitol grounds is everybody’s turf,” but I’m dealing with the way things are in this country, not the way they should be), then that message needs to be 100%, undiluted, positive atheism.

If I were to place a sign next to a creche, I’d have it say something like this.

During this holiday season, and at all times of the year, let us remember our shared humanity and come together in love and mutual support, striving towards a better future for us all. A person’s goodness comes, not from what they believe or don’t believe, but from who they are inside and what they do to better the world around them.

And then, when people look at the small print and see it’s from an atheist organization, will they think the sign is attacking them in the way a sign telling them they have hardened hearts and enslaved minds seems to be? Would they still want to pull it out of the ground? Or would they be less inclined to think of atheists as petty, mean-spirited pricks who are just bitter because they don’t have Baby Jesus and eggnog and crackling fireplaces in their lives? Would they have their consciousness raised? Maybe only some. But I bet that’s more than the FFRF’s present sign has won over.

So happy holidays, bountif
ul Solstice, and merry Christmas. Everybody.


Addendum: Well, predictably enough, not only have a number of readers completely misunderstood my point in this post, but some of them seem to have gone out of their way to make a special effort to do so, with one idiot even accusing me of “Uncle Tom” atheism. Another commenter wrote, “What you are saying boils down to, ‘If you’re not saying what I want you to say in the manner that I want you to say it, then shut the fuck up.’” Which is, of course, not what this post boils down to at all, period, not even a little bit. I’ve responded in detail in the comments myself.

Crippled dogs and one-trick ponies

I’ve just returned from the Texas SBOE hearings on Science TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) standards, and I’m so full of disgust and dismay that I’m at a loss for words to express it with enough rancor. You can, however, expect me to go on at length anyway. The whole thing was such a goddamn farce from the outset that I’d had more than enough after only one hour, at which point I could only roll my eyes and walk out the door. If you haven’t encountered the gall and dishonesty of creationists on their own turf before, and even if you have many times, it’s always the kind of experience that leaves you feeling worse about humanity in general.

As I write this, people are still speaking, and will be for a few hours yet. I saw no point in sticking around, but for all I know there could be, at any time, a real first-rate speaker who could get across the points that needed to be gotten across, and who would call out the creos on the disingenuous rhetoric they repeatedly spewed. As it is, I left the whole charade with two key observations: 1) That the big pitch the creationists are using isn’t merely the weasel phrase “strengths and weaknesses,” but their defense of that phrase as an expression of support for “academic freedom” that the scientific community apparently opposes; and 2) that the pro-science side, at least as I saw it today, is singly unaware of how to respond to that rhetoric properly and forcefully.

This cannot be understated: Just as the anti-gay contingent of the Christian right sells its opposition to gay marriage as a “defense” of “traditional” marriage that can in no way be compared to opposition to interracial marriage or anything of that sort, so too are the creationists now abandoning the overt, lawsuit-bait language of “intelligent design” for “academic freedom” language that makes them seem like the ones encouraging students to use their minds to think about and evaluate ideas that are presented to them in class on their merits. Conversely, the pro-science side wants to shut this kind of inquiry down, and just require students to be obedient little sponges soaking up whatever the textbooks say.

Why this is a misrepresentation and gross misunderstanding of the opposition to such terms as “strengths and weaknesses” was, to his credit, appropriately explained by Texas Citizens for Science spokesman Steve Schafersman. But he didn’t make the point forcefully enough, and even he seemed taken aback when challenged by one of the creationist board members after giving his alloted three-minute address. I’ll discuss that last, because it was after Schafersman spoke that I ducked out. After all, if a veteran front-line soldier in the science education wars like Schafersman falters when some creationist puts him in the hot seat, it’s clearly time for the pro-science side to step back and understand just how dishonest the rhetoric is, and how it has to be addressed in a no-nonsense manner, calling bullshit bullshit, and stating the pro-science position with sufficient force and clarity that no sleazy creationist ideologue can sit there lying about it and sounding smug and reasonable while doing so. I don’t see that the pro-science speakers today fully appreciated the ideological scrimmage line they were going up against, nor the fact that the game plan was going to be offense all the way.

A quick rundown of some of the speakers I did see.

As I had a number of errands to run early in the day, I was worried that I may have missed a lot of the good stuff. I didn’t end up getting downtown to the Travis State Office Building until about 3:30. But as the TFN announced that the hearing itself wouldn’t start until likely after lunch, and as I recall the last set of hearings I attended in the same building five years ago went on until well into the night, I figured I hadn’t missed too much.

Turned out my timing was excellent. The hearings on the science standards started right around 3:55. That must have been some sheer pain for those folks who’d been there since 9:00 AM.

As the title of the post indicates, what ensued was the kind of dog-and-pony show where the dog has only three legs and all the pony knows how to do is turn in a circle. The first speaker was a dignified and well spoken older gentleman named Dr. Joe Bernal, who was himself an SBOE member in the 1990′s, and who spoke eloquently on the need to keep science scientific and avoid the pitfalls of allowing room for non-scientific ideas. He stated that it was the duty of parents, not schools, to determine a student’s religious instruction. He also reiterated the support among the scientific community for evolutionary theory.

Now, after a speaker has done his three minutes, board members can ask questions of that speaker if they wish. I saw it coming even before it started. The instant the bell chimed on Dr. Bernal’s address, creationist board member Terri Leo leapt out of the phone booth with her Supergirl costume on and hit the ground faster than a speeding bullet.

Her first agenda: discredit the recent survey, cited by Dr. Bernal, that showed 98% of biologists and science educators in Texas support evolution. “Who funded that study? Wasn’t that study funded by the Texas Freedom Network?” Dr. Bernal admitted it was, but stated calmly that whoever funded the study was beside the point. He actually got in a good comeback to Leo, noting that even the science teachers selected by the SBOE to review the science standards voted in the majority. But Leo wasn’t finished. “I always thought that taking polls wasn’t how you do science.” Well, of course not, and the poll wasn’t an exercise in doing science. The science is already done. The point of the poll was simply to get a show of hands among professionals in the relevant fields as to what theory is appropriate to teach in classrooms. But this is the kind of dishonest rhetoric that creationists will throw out there to get the pro-science side on the defensive.

The thing about Terri Leo is, she’s so dumb and sleazy that she cannot resist overplaying her hand. And she did it right away by using shameless creationist language while simultaneously denying any creationist agenda on her or the SBOE’s part. Note that Dr. Bernal only brought up religion in passing in his speech, pointing out that it’s a private family matter and not fit for science class. Leo leapt on this like a hungry tiger, railing that the phrase “strengths and weaknesses” was not religious language, and that the only people making a big deal about religion supposedly being shoehorned into science curricula are “militant Darwinists.”

I am not shitting you. She actually used that term, out loud, in front of a packed room, in her questioning of the very first speaker of the day.

I couldn’t stop myself. I laughed out loud, loud enough for her to hear. (“Hey…sorry, but…”) That was when I knew that the whole day was going to be a complete joke.

Dr. Bernal responded quite impressively by bringing up — and I’m so glad he was the first speaker, which is when it needed to be brought up — that the SBOE had themselves enlisted known anti-evolutionists affiliated with the Discovery Institute, who have not exactly been secretive about their own religious and creationist agendas, to be among those assigned to review science standards. Specifically he asked (to the delight of the crowd), “Why is someone from an institute in Seattle being asked to review Texas science education standards?”

And here we saw, for the first time, the depth of the SBOE’s egregious dishonesty they were going to display today. The presence of the DI’s Stephen Meyer, and creationist textbook writers Charles Garner and Ralph Seelke was brought up many time by many speakers, and no one on the board would defend or even address it. They simply were not going to justify their actions in this regard to the public, or at least, they didn’t in the hour I was there. If anyone reading this stayed through to the end, and he
ard anything from Dan McLeroy or Terri Leo about why these men, with their overt ID affiliations, were asked to review the Science TEKS standards for Texas, do let us all know in the comments.

Unlike 2003, when Terri Leo (working hand in hand with the Discotute) front-loaded that day’s speakers with creationists, I only heard one creationist speak today, some idiot who sleazily brought up the DI’s long-ridiculed “list of 700 dissenting scientists” as if it represented some kind of major controversy within science over Darwinian evolution. (As Ken Miller pointed out hilariously in his talk back in the spring at UT, this number represents barely a single-digit percentage of the total number of professionals in the relevant fields, and the list includes a number of names of non-biologists and similarly unqualified people who happen to have Ph.D.’s.) This guy then shamelessly rushed headlong into Godwin’s Law while the audience groaned, averring (after supposedly having watched Expelled too many times) that by refusing to allow ideas to be questioned in class, we were doomed to be heading down the same path those poor misguided Germans went down.

This inspired such derision from the crowd that Terri Leo — shocked, shocked at just how “rude” people were being in response to the entirely reasonable comparison that had just been drawn between themselves and Nazis — exhorted everyone to be more “respectful” of this poor man, who had taken valuable time out of his day to come down here to call everyone Nazis, and would the board please be more diligent about controlling such inconsiderate and shocking outbursts.

I can’t really put into words the atmosphere of disbelief that circulated around the room at this point. People were being calm, but among the audience and people waiting for their turn to speak (and I saw a very reassuring majority wearing “Stand Up for Science” stickers on their lapels), there was a definite vibe of “Just how much bullshit are we expected to endure?” Well, people, that’s what we all have to remember about creationists and religious ideologues: they are a Perpetual Motion Machine and Bullshit Factory all rolled into one, unleashing an unstoppable deluge of bovine feces that would even make Noah throw up his hands and say, “Fuck it, no ark is gonna save us from this one.”

Finally I come to Steven Shafersman, a man I admire and whose work in battling creationism over the years and fronting Texas Citizens for Science is unimpeachable. I had already made up my mind to disembark this ship of fools, but when I heard Shafersman’s name announced I stuck around, deciding he’d be the last guy I’d hear.

Shafersman did well, but unfortunately his talk left an opening for one of the creationist board members (a portly man whose name I didn’t catch, but who’s been identified by a commenter as Ken Mercer) to pounce on. See, Shafersman’s main point was that the reason it was inappropriate to have language like “evaluate strengths and weaknesses” in scholastic standards is that it requires activity on the part of the students they haven’t got the expertise for. Mercer tried to obfuscate this by making it seem as if Shafersman and the pro-science side didn’t even want students to be allowed to raise their hands and ask questions in class. This is emphatically not the case, of course, and Schafersman explained that, going on to say that in science, theories are critically evaluated in the field by working professionals, not by students hearing the theories for the first time and lacking the proper expertise and frame of reference to do a “critical evaluation” in the first place.

But Mercer kept hammering the false point repeatedly. What about errors and hoaxes in the past? What about Piltdown Man? What about Haeckel’s inaccurate embryo drawings, that were in textbooks for years? If people weren’t allowed to question these things, wouldn’t these errors and hoaxes have gone unexposed, and wouldn’t students be learning misinformation today? Why try to stifle the sort of open inquiry that led to these very necessary corrections?

Here is where Shafersman fumbled the ball, because there was such an easy and obvious response to this that it was all I could do to hold my tongue and not blurt it out as loudly as I could shout. I just wanted Shafersman to say one simple thing, and he never said it, because I think he was so flummoxed by the aggressiveness of Mercer’s questioning that he allowed himself to fall into the trap that had been set for him, forcing him to go on the defensive. (“Why, as a matter of fact I was one of the scientists instrumental in getting Haeckel’s drawings out of textbooks!” To which Mercer simply replied, “Right! So why then…”)

Here’s what I think Shafersman should have said in reply to Mercer:

“Sir, your examples support my point. The Piltdown Man hoax and Haeckel’s drawings were both shown to be false by working scientists, not students. It wasn’t as if some 14 year old in 9th grade biology class pointed to those drawings and said, ‘I don’t know, teacher, those just don’t look right to me.’ Because that student could not have done that. He would not have had the knowledge and expertise. And that is why requiring the analysis of ‘strengths and weaknesses’ is inappropriate language, as it requires students to do something they’re not equipped to do. Imagine a history class where you’re teaching about Alexander the Great. Then you say to your students, ‘Okay, kids, write a critical analysis of Alexander’s battle plans against the Thracians.’ How can they do this? They aren’t generals, they’re teenagers. They aren’t qualified. First, you have to teach them the facts. Then, later on, if they pursue this field as a vocation they may gain the expertise to critique ‘strengths and weaknesses.’ But for now, they just need facts. And that’s why we’re opposed to this language in the TEKS. Our opposition is not a synonym for stifling all academic inquiry or even simple questions, and to claim that it is is an extremely dishonest red herring.”

That’s how he should have shut Mercer down. And to his credit, he did make some of these points. But Shafersman was never as forceful as Mercer was. The best Shafersman could do, it seemed, was feebly try to regain control of the questioning with very weak-sounding responses (to the effect of “We don’t really need to go into the details of Haeckel right now…”, which embarrassingly sounds like an attempt at dodging the issue).

I simply could not handle any more. I bolted.

It was clear that the creationist contingent knew that the pro-science side was going to show up in force at these hearings, and they came loaded for bear with every bit of disingenuous rhetoric in their how-to-play-dirty playbook. You’ll recall in Kazim’s recent critique of the “rumble in Sydney,” in which Alan Conradi debated a minister, that Kazim made a very important point: ultimately, public debates are a matter of the performance, not the content. While these hearings were not a debate in the formal, forensic sense, they were an informal public “debate” not unlike that which goes on in The Atheist Experience and similar live venues, where topics are argued, often skillfully and often not, in an off-the-cuff manner with minimal prep.

The hearings today were that kind of thing, just an extremely farcicial parody of it. In one corner, a sincere collection of educators and science activists simply trying to ensure that the state’s educational standards aren’t diluted by trojan-horse language that, while non-inflammatory on its face, still leaves room for religious teaching to be slipped into classrooms by unscrupulous teachers (like, oh, John Freshwater); in the other, a board dominated by ideologues who aren’t the least bit interested in understanding the views presented to them (all the while hypocritically claiming to promote freedom of inquiry), and who made every effort to obfuscate, mi
srepresent, and lie about those views.

In other words, a joke. A complete and utter joke.

And they wonder why people say Texas is a laughingstock.

Two more observations before I sign off (and remember, this whole epic-length post was simply my report on viewing one hour of this rubbish today):

  1. I would have liked to have stuck around to hear the woman speak who showed up dressed (quite attractively) as if she’d stepped off the set of Little House on the Prairie. I imagine she was going to make some point about 19th century education being unsuited for a 21st century world, but there’s no way I could have endured more of Terri Leo and Ken Mercer’s verbal diarrhea while waiting. If any of you did hear her, tell us what she said, please.
  2. The pro-science side does seem to have one solid ally on the SBOE, in the person of Mary Helen Berlanga. Ms. Berlanga was very polite and thanked all of the pro-science speakers, including Steve Shafersman, for their hard work and efforts. But that just made me want to hear more from her. Why not be as aggressive with the questioning in the way Bradley and Leo were? Why not be the one to answer the repeated queries about why known ID-supporters and anti-evolutionists were allowed to review the Science TEKS this year?

Addendum: Made corrections once Ken Mercer was identified in the comments.

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.)

World still here, so far

Well, the Large Hadron Collider has been switched on, and as far as I can tell, we haven’t all been slurped into a black hole to Narnia or whatever alternate universe might await us at the end of one. It’s an amazingly ambitious experiment, and one that will certainly reshape a lot of what we understand (or don’t) about the early universe. I like Stephen Hawking’s take on the whole thing. He’s banking on that wonderful unpredictability you so often find in science. Hawking has bet £100 that, in fact, the LHC will not confirm the existence of the elusive Higgs boson, but will in fact lead us to discover things we may never have dreamed of. We’ll see how it pans out, won’t we? Unless I wake up tomorrow with a winged octopus perched on my nightstand singing Beatles tunes while feeding me breakfast in bed. I might get suspicious I was in another universe at that point.

What will it take?

Christians often ask atheists the above question. What kind of evidence would it take to convince us of God’s existence? I’d like to turn the question back to them. What would it take to convince them that maybe God is just a product of their imaginations and wishful thinking?

Allow me to preface this with an unambiguous statement. People dying is never funny (well, okay — except for Pauly Shore), and posts like this are not meant as a “ha ha!” to believers in any way. But there’s a disconnect here that I’d really like explained to me.

Short version: Busload of evangelical Christians is swept off a bridge in San Salvador by a swollen river, at least 30 die. Was God looking out for those people? Did he sit back and let them die for a reason? How do believers square this kind of thing with the Problem of Evil? Really, I’d like to know how Christians process an event like this in such a way as to continue to permit themselves their beliefs in a loving heavenly father. Do these kinds of events — tragically affecting those whom you’d think God would be most inclined to protect — ever bring Christians a moment’s pause? Or is that all it is: a pause, before the rationalizations kick in? Or is there a convincing argument to be made in defense of God here? Doesn’t it seem like these kinds of situations would present God with exactly the opportunity for miraculous intervention that would silence the atheists of the world immediately with direct empirical evidence of his loving grace?