Jonathan Park and the Mind Pathetically Misled: a rant

This is the kind of bilge guys like Don McLeroy and Ken Mercer would like to see taught in science classes here in Texas, and no mistake. One loses count of the scientifically illiterate creationist poltroons who have claimed to have disproved Darwin over the years, only to faceplant into a briar patch of epic fail. But that hasn’t daunted the intrepid folks at San Antonio’s Vision Forum Ministries, who have created a 12-episode radio series called Jonathan Park and the Journey Never Taken, spreading, one presumes, the usual McDonald’s menu of tepid, reheated anti-science lies. Let’s see how they do in their “disproofs”…

“While Darwinism’s impact remains far-reaching, its clutch on the culture is beginning to slip,” concluded [Vision Forum Ministries president Doug] Phillips. “Programs like Jonathan Park illustrate the growing number of people who reject the notion that the world came to be through random chance and chaos, recognizing instead that the creation speaks forth of a Creator.”

Annnnd…FAIL! Let’s count the errors, shall we? First, Darwin’s theory is not a theory regarding how the “world came to be,” and second, nowhere does any model of evolution supported by science make the claim that it is a process of “random chance and chaos”. So, wow, right there in an introductory web post, Phillips reveals his utter ignorance of the science he claims his stupid little program disproves. One can only imagine how bad the actual shows are.

Such a sad, dark little life of ignorance fundamentalism requires you to lead. I recently read Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and it has to be the ultimate in travel writing. Imagine if Darwin had had his own blog during the seminal travels of his life, and you’ll get an idea of what’s it’s like. And if it reveals one thing more clearly than anything else, it’s that Charles Darwin possessed a sense of wonder and sheer unbridled awe about the beauty and majesty of life and the world we live in immeasurably greater than any felt by the pitiful creationists at Vision Forum Ministries — or any other creationist institution dedicated to the desperate clinging to the skirts of Bronze Age mythology instead of the real wonders that science and knowledge reveal to us.

They’re gearing this crap towards children, in the hopes their natural wonder about the world and hunger for learning will be stifled before it has a chance to form. And all in the interests of maintaining ancient beliefs and the ministries that sell them. This is why we fight. Minds are at stake. Somewhere in the world is a student who will go on to cure AIDS, extend human life expectancy, and solve other ills that befall us, and that student will have to understand evolution. Creationists fear this, and want this destroyed at all costs. Religion doesn’t care what destruction it leaves in its wake, as long as it comes out on top in the end.

Addendum: It didn’t take long for Pat Roy, writer of the radio show in question, to turn up in the comments to defend his efforts. Game of Pat to show up and comment. I’m replying here as Blogger limits the character length of comments, and my rebuttal goes on at length.

Pat writes, after quoting some writing of Erasmus’ Darwin’s:

Notice how [Erasmus] mentions the formation of the earth from chaos. And we can show that Charles accepted most of his father’s [sic] ideas. Do these statements specifically address biological evolution? No. And that may be your point. However, I believe Mr. Phillip’s statements were referring to the theory of “evolution” as many do — from Big Bang to complex humans – which we see very clearly in Erasmus’ quote (and many others). So you are wrong on your post, many evolutionists do attempt to explain the formation of the world from chaos.

“Many” — at least among scientists and the scientifically literate — do not in fact conflate such cosmological theories as the Big Bang with biological evolution, and if your radio show says they do, it is lying. It is the case that scientists who accept evolution also tend to accept such theories as the Big Bang, but to say that they refer to every field of study regarding origins under the all-purpose umbrella of “evolution” is deceptive. It’s precisely the kind of little deception that creationists engage in as a matter of course; the idea being that many little deceptions add to a student’s mistrust of the reliability of science and the scientific method, until, crack, the proverbial camel’s back proverbially breaks.

Can you in fact name these “many evolutionists” who “attempt to explain the formation of the world from chaos”? (Apart from Chuck D.’s grandad, that is? Science has progressed on the question somewhat since his day, you understand.) Because, from the studying I’ve done, scientists explain the formation of the world as following from known laws of physics. That an accretion disc of dust and nebular materials condensed around a young hot star and formed our solar system using such tried-and-true methods as gravity, and electrostatic and centrifugal forces. Sure, prior to all this going on, the original solar nebula may have been a somewhat chaotic glob of matter. But we wouldn’t have gotten a solar system out of it had physics not taken a role. That’s not simple chaos, and no respectable scientist would describe it so.

So, I’m sorry, your response so far does not leave me with much confidence in your presenting accurate science to your young audience.

Next, Doug Phillips and a team from Vision Forum have just returned from an amazing trip to from the Galapagos. I read the men’s’ accounts on their own voyage to these islands. They too, were filled with the awe and diversity of the animals there. They were inspired by the wonder, beauty, and sense of wonder at the islands. As a matter of fact, the VF team marveled at the incredible design of each animal – appreciating the very ingenuity that went into each one — whereas Charles Darwin attributed the beauty to non-intelligent processes. To say Darwin could appreciate the beauty and purpose more than a creationist isn’t based on anything other than an emotional response!

Phillips and his team went to the Galapagos and returned with more awe of their God. Darwin found awe in nature, without needing any recourse to the supernatural. This is the distinction I meant. Darwin went to the Galapagos and found himself learning new things and formulating original ideas. Your boys went there pretending to be open-minded admirers of science, all the while simply looking to shore up beliefs they already held.

The “design” evident in the animals of the Galapagos, and the whole world, results from an understood process: that of evolution by natural selection, sometimes called descent with modification. That this process is not “intelligent,” not teleological, does not invalidate it. Indeed, there are many problems that begin to crop up in our understanding of biology, and of all the sciences, the minute one tries to shoehorn a magical, all-powerful God into the equation. One is now obliged to explain how and why this God has created things the way he did. One is obliged to reconcile very clear instances of bad “design” — in human beings, for instance, our spines curve in such a way as to risk very bad back problems late in life, our knees bend the wrong way for maximal locomotion, and a woman’s birth canal is not large enough to admit a baby’s head without severe agony and possibly life-threatening consequences for the mother — on the part of this supposedly all-knowing and all-powerful creator. Tellingly, the only way creationists and religionists can reconcile these problems is through recourse to myths that, by their very nature, cannot be examined or confirmed: women’s birth pains are explained as a consequnce of Eve’s “fall,” for instance.

To put it
politely, this isn’t science. Nor is wandering around the Galapagos going, “Wow, look at that tortoise, isn’t God a great designer!”

As far as stifling children… I can say that I have had email after email from children (for many years) that have gotten excited about science and discovering the world around them as a direct result of the production. As a matter of fact, we end each episode with the tag-line, “This is our Father’s world. God created it. We can explore it. Now live the adventure.” Does that sound like we’re “stifling” children, or encouraging them to explore?

It sounds like you’re stifling them without understanding how you’re doing it. Real science, real learning, is done by withholding conclusions about your findings until you’ve seen where the evidence leads. Based on your comments here, it sounds like your entire presentation in these shows follows the creationist playbook: Present kids with nature; offer the false choice between “unintelligent, chaotic processes” and “intelligent design”; cast the choice in terms of a “Duh!” moment (after all, who could believe that all this amazing design in nature could possibly be the result of random chance?!!?1!); and voila — teh God!

Do you truly, accurately present the evidence for evolution in your series? Do you allow pro-evolution scientists who also happen to be Christians — Kenneth Miller, Francisco Alaya, among others — to make guest appearances on the show to explain what the evidence actually tells us? I don’t for an instant believe you do. And that’s not an emotional response. It’s rooted in a long history of dealing with creationists and their dishonesty. What actual, scientifically falsifiable evidence do you present to support the claims “This is our Father’s world. God created it” (in the way science education provides falsifiable evidence for evolution, I mean)? Or are you just telling kids this? If the latter, then, once more with feeling: That isn’t science, Pat, it’s simply religion looking for intellectual cred by donning a lab coat.

I don’t doubt you’ve gotten praiseworthy emails from kids, Pat. But that doesn’t confirm the content of what you teach is true, only that kids with no prior knowledge of science and no way to verify or disconfirm what you taught them enjoyed the experience. I will admit, in fairness, that you may inadvertently have done some of these kids some good. Some of them may well have gone on to study science as they got further along in their educations. And then they’d have discovered that the actual evidence doesn’t quite support what you taught them. Then, some of them may thank you again &#151 if for a very different reason.

Here is the biggest problem with your statement: most of the founding fathers of science were creationists. So to say that creation stifles scientific discovery is just untrue — as proven by history.

Well of course, Pat! Science is about discovery, and developing new theories to supplant old ones when the evidence calls for it. Are you really trying to offer me “Scientists long before Darwin believed in creation” as if it were an argument that validated creation? I mean, you could just as easily say that, because most early doctors were Galenists who believed in the four “humors,” this in no way stifles medical discovery.

Of course early scientists were creationists, because, until Darwin, no one had established a theory of evolution with a solid body of evidence behind it. Early scientists can hardly be expected to have held an idea that did not yet exist, let alone have a strong, evidence-backed theory behind it.

When medicine began to be informed by such things as the germ theory of disease, archaic notions like the humors were discarded as no longer useful or factual. If any doctors today still held to Galenism and the humors, they wouldn’t be good doctors. By the same token, evolution has been confirmed by such a vast body of evidence, and continues to be confirmed by new discoveries all the time. To hang onto an old idea that denies evolution, despite the evidence, is not good science. Creationists who reject evolution in this day and age are like doctors who are still Galenists, holding onto an outmoded idea and bizarrely defending it by pointing out that this is how people long ago thought!

So, thanks for the friendly response. But I’m afraid I’ve found nothing in it to think your program is going to be any less rubbish than all the other creationist efforts I’ve encountered. And if you think my critique was a little on the harsh side, I’d advise you to strap on the Kevlar once actual biologists hear what you’re filling impressionable little minds with.

Christian Right defecating selves over McLeroy rejection

And as always, whenever someone of that ilk (I love words like “ilk” — they sound so yuckily apropos in instances like these) opens his yap, lies flow like especially pungent and curdled vomit. Remember, creationists can’t not lie. Here are some quotes from a fundagelical email making the rounds, playing the usual Christian “persecution” card. Crazy Hint #1: strategic use of ALL CAPS.

…The highly partisan Sen. Kirk Watson and Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and the highly partisan TEXAS FREEDOM NETWORK, have successfully brought the Satanic art of “BORKING” to Texas … ; they recently managed to smear Dr. Don McLeroy, a good and decent man, with sickening LIES. This tag-team of DEMONS claimed that Dr. McLeroy tried to force CREATIONISM into the Science Classroom, and they told this brazen LIE over and over again.

Yes, let’s all ignore the fact that members of the creationist special interest group known fondly to us all as The Discovery Institute were appointed by the SBOE under McLeroy to review science education and TEKS test standards. Let’s ignore the fact that that bimbo Terri Leo let her creationist freak-flag fly proudly by publicly spouting such creotard phraseology as “militant Darwinists” in front of SRO public meetings. Let’s ignore the fact that Ken Mercer repeatedly makes an ass of himself by publicly spewing criticisms of nonexistent “weaknesses” of evolution that come straight from creationist literature (there’s evidence for “microevolution” and none for “macroevolution,” and similar bullshit). Let’s ignore that fact that Mac has just plain come right out and stated he believes the Earth is 6000 years old, a belief as moronically contrafactual as saying Los Angeles is a hundred yards from New York City, and that a person that frakkin’ stupid has no business determining the educations of millions of schoolchildren. Nope, no creationism on this board, nosiree.

I have to disagree with one piece of equivocation TFN insists on making (perhaps in an effort not to alienate more liberal and pro-science minded theists), that Mac’s religious beliefs were not the reason he was so vehemently opposed, his incompetence and ideology were.

Mac’s religious beliefs indeed would not have been an issue…until he made them the issue by trying to inject them into curricula.

Mac’s desperate defenders try to peddle the absurd spin that Mac simply wanted students to have the “academic freedom” to examine the evidence, pro and con. You know, the not-so-crafty lie that the creationists have constructed so as to make them seem like they’re the scientifically-minded and intellectually “honest” ones. But the transparency of that spin is readily apparent to anyone who has followed the recent history of American creationism and seen precisely how the movement has evolved to take advantage of political realities.

The “teach the controversy” and “academic freedom” rhetoric they advance now is specifically designed to sow basic doubts in students’ minds about the validity of and support for evolutionary science. Overtly teaching creationism is something they know they can’t do, but they’ve discovered something even more weaselly effective: simply plant the nugget of doubt that evolution is well-supported by evidence, and then everything the student encounters in his extracurricular life — validation from equally ignorant and ill-educated church members; crazy conspiracy theories from Ben Stein; “reasonable” sounding design arguments like irreducible complexity — will do the rest.

They don’t really care about knowledge or the scientific method. The only agenda of the believer is to protect the belief. Even if that requires posing as an “open-minded” science supporter when you actually seek to completely gut science and everything it teaches us about reality.

So, yes, I will come right out and say that Mac’s religious beliefs were at the root of why he was rejected from a position he was totally unqualified to hold. And it’s because he chose to inject those beliefs inappropriately into his work, disguising them (poorly) in the rhetoric of the increasingly politically savvy anti-evolution movement.

Our idiot blithers:

The TRUTH is that Dr. McLeroy and the SBOE have simply asked that the SCIENTIFIC METHOD be applied fairly and universally in the Science Classroom; in particular, they have ask that the SCIENTIFIC METHOD even be applied to two SACRED-COWS/RELIGIONS of the Liberal Democrats, namely, (1) Darwinian Evolution and (2) Global Warming.

Newsflash, butt-biscuit-for-brains. The scientific method has been applied to those concepts (we leave sacred cows and religions to fools like you). Guess what? They passed. You failed. Run along now. Play with your blocks. But be careful. They might be too educational.

This week in Austin: yet another evolution/ID debate

Christians still don’t seem to have gotten the memo from Dover that ID is dead deader deadest, and they’re still trying to find public forums in which to flog its corpse. I’m not sure they should be accorded the courtesy of a debate by legitimate scientists any more. More and more I tend to agree with the views of those who say these debates, by virtue of occurring at all, send a message that ID must have some scientific legitimacy, otherwise why would major universities be hosting the debates in the first place.

That’s not the case, of course. Any student group can book facilities at their university, and so another one of these debates is taking place this coming Tuesday at 7. Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer will be one of three folks on the pro-science side, taking on two creationists, Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, of Reasons to Believe. These guys, like Behe, have scientific backgrounds, and I know Shermer and Ross have debated before. Despite Ross’s CV’s, though, I must say, I’ve seen some episodes of the Reasons to Believe show on TBN, and was, let us say, amused. On one episode as I recall, Ross tried to answer one aspect of the problem of evil — that of “natural” evils like earthquakes — in this way: that God needs earthquakes because that his way of moving minerals through the Earth’s crust.

I wish I could make stuff like that up, people.

As for Shermer, well, here’s the deal. I like the man, like what he does to promote skepticism, have liked some of his books. I also worry about how he’ll handle himself in this debate, because he’s the kind of guy who — well, I don’t know if it’s too strong to call him a “Neville Chamberlain atheist,” but he is inclined towards trying to find a conciliatory middle ground between religion and science that I just don’t think works. I’ll post a review of his book Why Darwin Matters soon to explain what I mean.

Whatever Shermer ends up saying, I know we won’t have to worry about such “we are the world” namby-pambiness from another of the pro-science debaters, Sahotra Sarkar. This guy takes the gloves right off. In early 2002 he debated that supreme nitwit Kirk Durston at UT, and utterly shamed him. I suspect Ross and Rana will be licking their wounds after a few rounds of Sarkar’s debate-fu.

Of the third pro-science debater, Kenneth Diller, I know nothing. I don’t know if he’ll be moderating the debate and the CFI site has him mis-listed as a participant, or what.

Now here’s the sad bit: I’ll be out of town for this. So we’ll have to rely on a report from Kazim or Matt or someone else on the crew. But I’m sure it will be a night to remember.

One complaint a lot of us have already made: The title of the debate is “Was Darwin Wrong?”, which is a fine example of that problem Kazim has discussed here, which is that so many of these debates — planned as they tend to be by the religious side &#151 come front-loaded with assumptions favoring the religious position. Was Darwin wrong? About what? There were several things Darwin was wrong about. But evolution by natural selection isn’t one of them, as 150 years of solid science have shown. A better title might have been “Which has greater evidence, evolution or intelligent design?” But that would put poor Reasons to Believe at a serious disadvantage, I suppose, and reveal their reasons to believe are fragile things indeed.

No, we haven’t all died

I know, a week and a half without a new post is a long time for any blog to go, especially one with a pretty strong readership we’d like to keep. (Hugs!) It’s just one of those times when real life intrudes, I suppose, and none of us has found the time to work blogging into our schedules. I’ll do my best to improve that situation for my own part. Everyone else, well, they post rarely enough as it is, so they’ll drop by when they see fit, I’m sure. (Condescending snicker.)

I must say, it has been kind of nice to take a breather, away from the daily cataloguing of the absurdities of the righteous. Still, there are some things going on, and so it’s a good time to haul my fat ass back up into the saddle and get this old nag back on the road again.

The biggest news down Austin way has been the confirmation hearings for that assrocket Dan “Stand Up To The Experts” McLeroy. Our bold and equally rebellion-minded governer Rick “Secede!” Perry reappointed McLeroy to chair the Texas State Board of Education in 2007, but his reappointment requires the Senate Nomination Committee’s approval, apparently, and today, his confirmation hearing was held. The Texas Freedom Network liveblogged it, and they have a high old time unpacking all of Mac’s prevarications as he was up at the mic defending himself and the SBOE. It sounds as if McLeroy did an absolutely awesome job of digging his own grave today. I hope the Committee realizes that statements like this…

5:37 -McLeroy says almost everyone in his church rejects evolution and supports creationism. He describes himself as a young Earth creationist. He says he tells reporters that he wants to be up front and honest about his beliefs. “I think it’s a pretty rational view.”

…are tantamount to the man just standing up and shouting “Disqualify me!” I mean, cripes, this is like asking General Motors shareholders and board of directors to appoint as CEO of the company a man who says, “Well, I’m pretty sure that cars are powered by a combination of giant wound-up rubber bands and a couple dozen hamsters on treadmills concealed within the engine block. I think that’s a pretty rational view.”

I mean, here’s a man boasting of how totally uneducated he is, and he’s expecting Senate confirmation?

McLeroy really does appear to have been grilled. At least one senator has stated his intention to oppose Mac’s confirmation, and other senators on the committee don’t sound terribly sympathetic to him. Let us hope that the vote goes the right way, and Texas will finally start back on the proper path in how it educates its students, without extremist religious ideology and the personal beliefs of SBOE members constantly setting up roadblocks that unnecessarily impede the whole process, solely for the gratification of the egos of McLeroy and his idiot YEC posse.

When Does Ignorance Become an “Answer”?

As you likely know, Texas recently has become the new Kansas as unabashed YEC and school board member Don McElroy pushes for new education standards in Texas science classrooms. The Austin American-Statesman editorial section has become a really interesting read for any interested atheist. An idea was expressed this morning in the letters to the editor by one citizen, and I wanted to add some input. Unfortunately, my response would be longer than the letters section would allow, so, I am adding my input here:

Claim 1: Each spring supernatural garden fairies make my garden grow using magical techniques that are a mystery to my limited human mind. I know this is true, because I have seen my garden grow each spring. And I can demonstrate to others that my garden grows each spring; so, my garden fairy belief is not based on ignorant faith, because I have demonstrable evidence to support it.

Claim 2: In the beginning, a supernatural being made the whole universe exist using magical techniques that are a mystery to limited human minds. A letter-writer knows this is true, I am guessing, because he/she can see the universe exists. And he/she can demonstrate to others that the universe exists; so, his/her god belief is not based on ignorant faith, since he/she has evidence to support it.

In a letter to the editor in this morning’s Austin American-Statesman, Pat H. noted that science has no answers, but “God does.”

The difference between my fairy claim and Pat’s god claim is that more people believe Pat’s claim, and Pat’s claim (assuming Pat is basing this claim on the Bible—and statically speaking, here in Austin—there are pretty good odds of that) comes with a few thousand pages of pretty much irrelevant window dressing to distract adherents from the fact that the claim is nothing more than a promotion of willful human ignorance.

I’m thinking Pat would likely reject my fairy claim.

So, my question is this: How many distracting details and adherents do I need to add to my fairy story before it stops being a promotion of willful human ignorance and becomes an “answer”?

Democrats wake up and take the SBOE debacle seriously

The first step in de-moronizing the Texas State Board of Education has begun. In past years the Democrats have ill-advisedly ignored the SBOE, preferring more high-profile races in Texas politics. But with the current board overrun by anti-science creationist wackaloons who are turning the entire state into fodder for late-night comedians, the Dems are finally extracting craniums from rectums and realizing that the neocon theocrats cannot be allowed to gang-rape the education of an entire generation of Texas students.

And so the first challengers have been announced for the 2010 elections. Democratic activist Susan Shelton has announced she will challenge walking joke Cynthia “Obama Is a Terrorist” Dunbar, and that “as many as a dozen” other Democrats are considering a run. It’s about frickin’ time.

Meanwhile, the recent, second hearing on January 21 was evidently no less packed with stupid than the first. (Note to Clare Wuellner, who emailed me urging me to participate this time: I did try to call the number you gave me, but got nothing but a dispatcher who sounded like she couldn’t hear me and kept saying, “Hello, go ahead!” until I hung up. Weird.) You know, it’s just so tiresome the way these people try to pretend, with all of their “strengths and weaknesses” code words and what have you, that their opposition to evolution education isn’t about promoting their religious agendas. And then when these hearings are held, the fools speaking out for their side put the lie to that the instant they open their idiot gobs.

Folks, we got change in 2008. Let’s get some more in ’10. Vote!

You asked for it

Here’s a distant shot of Clare Wuellner of CFI-Austin in The Dress, giving testimony at Wednesday’s SBOE hearings. This comes from Steve Schafersman’s own blog. If you’d prefer a more journalistic, detailed, play-by-play account of the day’s events — you know, who spoke and what they said — and not just my indignant ranting, Steve’s got it. Tons of photos, too. He stayed all day, like a true battle-hardened veteran.

I’ll see if Clare can’t send along an even better picture of herself.

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.

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.