RIP Leslie Cochran

Moment of silence, please.  Leslie Cochran died today at the age of 60.  Austin is, sadly, less weird without him.

Leslie Cochran, June 24, 1951-March 8, 2012

Leslie Cochran, June 24, 1951-March 8, 2012

(Note: The original images from this post have been removed due to copyright concerns from the Austin American Statesman.  Please visit their excellent photo gallery at  The new image is from Creative Commons.)

I is on da teebee!

Monday afternoon, I was, with very little warning and only about an hour to do frantic house-cleaning in preparation, interviewed by local TV news channel KEYE 42. The story was about a new Coalition of Reason billboard that’s gone up on the north side of town (I haven’t actually driven past it yet). And I think I pretty much got the interview because I used to work with a fellow who works at the station. So that was nice of him to recommend me. (In case you’re wondering why they came to me and not, say, Matt.) The reporter, Chris Coffey, was a terrific guy and I think the piece does a fine job of being fair all around. And I’m sure you’ll all get a huge kick of the B-roll clip, where I’m standing at one of my shelves pretending to read The God Delusion, looking like I just had half a blue whale for lunch. You know what they say about the camera adding ten pounds? In my case it seems to add a whole second Martin. Back to the gym!

So, enjoy. And if you want to register at the site to leave comments responding to some of the charming Christian ones already left, well, it’s a free country!

Addendum: I wasn’t aware when I posted this just now that another station, KVUE, did a piece on the sign as well, which is embedded in the post below. They didn’t talk to me, and as far as I can tell, KEYE’s coverage was a lot fairer.

AustinCOR Billboard Campaign Starts!

This is what potentially millions of people will see over the next month as they travel south on I-35. The Austin Coalition of Reason, of which ACA is a member, officially kicked off its billboard campaign this morning. The billboard is located on I-35 north of Grand Avenue Parkway facing north. It’s a message of inclusion, designed to let other atheists, secularists, and freethinkers in the area know they are not alone.

It’s already been picked up by local news media, although KVUE is currently the only channel with the story posted. ACA Board Member and AustinCOR Coordinator, Don Rhoades, has done some heavy lifting today with news interviews. Check Don out on KVUE:

The disappointing thing about the campaign so far – the reporter here just couldn’t report the story without putting an overtly religious spin on the whole thing. The title of this story was part of a quote from a local pastor, “Atheist billboard a great advertisement for God.”

I guess if you think your god created a planet in a vast universe just for you, you just can’t help thinking a billboard is all about you too.

Addendum: Hello, Squid Hordes, and thanks to PZed for the linkage. Feel free to follow us if you enjoy what you read here, gang.

Update on Andrew Wakefield

In an earlier post, I drew attention to the anti-vax hero Andrew Wakefield. Today’s Austin American Statesman reported that Wakefield has left his executive director position at the Austin-based Thoughtful House Center for Children that he helped found. It’s possible that they can rehabilitate their reputation without him. Late last month, Wakefield was found “irresponsible” by the British General Medical Council for performing unnecessary invasive tests on children. He also “flouted the rules in pursuit of his theory – and profit”. A hearing in April will determine whether he is guilty of misconduct. If he is found guilty, he could be stripped of his medical license.

A Suicide Note I Empathize With

Today, a man flew a small plane into a building in Austin. It’s captured our attention for most of the day. It turns out that the pilot was very frustrated and did what is effectively a suicide attack on an IRS office. He also torched his own house with his wife and child in it. It appears that one of his intents was to get the world to read his suicide note. His drastic measures have proven successful.

Although I can’t understand or endorse what he did, I found a lot in his note that I agreed with. The main theme was about how so much of American life is gamed by the big guys and how little power the little guy has to stop it. He railed against tax codes that exploited his profession, health care, the legal code, the political system that fails to represent the people, and the Catholic church. He called the church “vulgar” and “corrupt” and bemoaned the fact that they have received tax exemptions that helped make them wealthy. I agree completely with the spirit of his complaints, even though I don’t understand the details of his situation.

I’m a reasonably intelligent guy and I cannot for the life of me figure out why the United States gives a tax exemption to the Catholic Church. The Church seems to exemplify the rigged system that we labor under. They have run a pedophile ring for decades in multiple countries and done everything in their power to evade responsibility. I’ve written about this before. Yes, some priests have received the justice they deserved, but to date none of the scheming hierarchy has seen the inside of a court, let alone a jail. The Catholic Church is a criminal organization that should have its assets seized under the RICO (racketeering) law until a full investigation can be performed. The assets of the church should be used to benefit its victims. I simply cannot fathom why they are still receiving a tax exemption.

To add insult to injury, the Pope has evaded a law suit in the pedophile scandal by claiming diplomatic immunity. Some people think he’s the head of some state. Ok. If they want to play that card, then let’s make all of the Catholic hierarchy Vatican citizens and revoke their US passports. They clearly have little respect for US law and they’re only following orders, like good little immoral soldiers they are. If they are convicted of a crime, they can be convicted or deported like any other badly-behaving alien. They want to have their cake and eat it too. When they can evade laws or screw with other countries, they’re a foreign country. When they want to make money, they’re a charity. So far, they’ve been very successful at the game.

I will continue to remind people of the corruption of the Catholic Church, but I don’t see them being treated any differently in the foreseeable future. Catholic laity are still deeply loyal to the Church. They appear to be happy to support the pedophilia and corruption because the value their magic crackers and ticket to perpetual orgasm over any sort of human moral virtue. Either that, or they’re hopelessly mindlessly ignorant. If a Catholic reader has a more generous interpretation, I’d like to hear it. Perhaps that reader can also explain why anyone should trust them on their woo-woo unverifiable supernatural claims when they spend so much time lying about real-world claims. They’re really good at lying, as near as I can tell.

The Catholic Church doesn’t run the US legal system. (At least I hope not.) They clearly seem to have help from outside their church. It appears that the majority of Christians value “religious tolerance”. What this has come to mean is a situational moral blind spot when the perpetrators of some atrocity happen to be fellow Christians. You also hear it as “Thou Shalt Not Judge”. In practice, it’s an agreement among thugs: “You don’t draw attention to my sociopathic Rapture snuff porn business and I won’t draw attention to your pedophile ring.” “You let me pray my sick child to death and I won’t call you on your faith-healing con game.” The list goes on. In the end, practical Christianity is about screwing someone and inhibiting anyone from doing something about it. It’s worked well for Christian leaders so far, why would they want to change it? Why would believers risk their ticket to nirvana actually doing something when they can take comfort in prayer (which has the same practical effect as masturbation)?

Lest you think I’m making this up, I have gotten a number of e-mails from Christians who seem to be shocked that I’m rattling the skeleton’s in Christianity’s closet. (I’m not party to the agreement between thugs.) Their biggest desire seems to be to shut me up. They seem to know what I’m saying is true, but they don’t want to hear it. One correspondent actually wanted me to enter a deal where if I lost, I would never say anything bad about a Christian again (even if it was true). That alone speaks volumes about Christianity to me. The moral failings of Christianity are a big part of my motivation to be an outspoken advocate for atheism. They should be a reason why we deny tax exemptions to such blatantly corrupt religious organizations.

Sadly, Christianity’s corruption is only part of the overall screwed up situation we’re in. I’m doing what I can with the tools I have. I would encourage all of you to do what you can to get us out of the myriad messes we’re all in.

A beautiful day, sans creationist fools

Okay, so I read on Pharyngula this morning that Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, rescheduled his giveaway of his bowdlerized Origin of Species on university campuses for today instead of tomorrow, evidently because he heard that people were preparing to counter it by printing up information from the NCSE’s enjoyable Don’t Diss Darwin site. So naturally, he had to do an end-run around that, since his pathetic, ignorant twaddle sinks like the Titanic when faced with the iceberg of scientific fact.

So I’m trying to make up my mind whether or not to go down to the UT-Austin campus and confront the dopes handing out books. But I’m not sure I really feel like it. For one reason, unless you’re a student, or you live down there or have business there, the campus isn’t very visitor-friendly. Traffic is a headache, and parking is a righteous pain in the ass at the best of times. And anyway, it would be amusing for a few minutes, I suppose, but then, like all dealings with creationist fools, it would simply get aggravating and tedious.

Finally, I step outside, and I see this.

And I think to myself, Wow, an absolutely perfect autumn day. Which is rare enough in Austin, I can tell you. Seriously, we’re talking deep blue, cloudless, endless skies, and the temperature like Goldilocks’ porridge. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right.

And then I think, now who would I rather spend a gorgeous day like this with? A gaggle of hopeless anti-science morons, or someone with more charisma and intelligence than all of them put together? Say, this guy:

It was not a difficult decision. Grab the leash, dial up a little Miles Davis on the iPod, and it’s off to the park we go, big boy!

Really, some days are just too beautiful to ruin.

So, I have no idea yet how the UT giveaway went, and what fireworks may or may not have erupted. I’ve put an email in to some folks with Atheist Longhorns I know, so maybe they’ll have a report for me later.

TFN Political event alert

I’m planning to attend this event hosted by the Texas Freedom Network.

From my inbox:

Could the religious right really be on the decline in America?

Come hear E.J. Dionne, the award-winning columnist for The Washington Post and author of the best-selling book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right, at a Faith and Freedom Speaker Series event on September 24 in Austin. Dionne is one of the nation’s most respected voices on the intersection of faith and politics in America today.

As a liberal, I enjoy EJ Dionne’s column in the Washington Post and appreciate any opportunity to tweak the religious right. On the other hand, as an atheist I have serious misgivings about any efforts by the left to “reclaim” faith and politics. I am not particularly concerned by candidates who mention their own religious beliefs as a personal matter — frankly I appreciate the opportunity to find out who to be wary of — but I think religion has no place ever being an explicit part of politics.

In any case, I’m certainly interested in going to see what Dionne has to say, perhaps armed with a few pointed questions at the end. If anyone wants to join me, click on the link at the top. It is free to the public, but you are advised to reserve your spot as seating will be limited.

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.

Wednesday science-y goodness in Austin

CFI-Austin, along with Texas Citizens for Science and the UT Section of Integrative Biology, is sponsoring a trio of talks this evening to be held at UT’s Burdine Hall, room 108. I think I had some classes there back in the day. The general theme is “Science Education in Texas,” which, as you may well know, is under a cloud due to the ideological machinations of the arch-conservative State Board of Education and its young-earth-creationist dentist chairman, Dan McLeroy.

Admission is free and it all starts at 6:30. The speakers include the TCS’s own Steve Schafersman, on “How Will Texas Oppose Aggressive, Organized Creationism in Texas?”; Ed Brayton, author of the blog Dispatches from the Culture Wars, on the religious roots of ID (there’s also a Dispatches blog meetup for Ed at Stubb’s BBQ Thursday night at 7); and Josh Rosenau, NCSE staffer and author of the blog Thoughts from Kansas, on the evolution of the creationist movement.

I’m going to do my level best to attend. Hope lots of you can too. If you see me there, wave.

Addendum: Well, bummer, you won’t see me there. If any of our readers do attend, please post a report in the comments.