The world McLeroy wants

A recent report reveals what those of us who value science education and its benefits to society have long since feared: American students’ comprehension of the biosciences can be summed up in two words, epic fail.

Middle and high school students across the country are generally falling behind in life sciences, and the nation is at risk of producing a dearth of qualified workers for the fast-growing bioscience industry, according to a report released Monday.

Students are showing less interest in taking life sciences and science courses, and high schools are doing a poor job of preparing students for college-level science, says the report, funded and researched by Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and the Biotechnology Institute.

The deficiencies will hurt the country’s competitiveness with the rest of the world in the knowledge-based economy, the report concludes.

What the news article doesn’t mention is that ever-expanding elephant in the room. There’s a reason this is happening, and it isn’t just that students would rather spend time with their 360s and PS3s. The interest in science education is waning because of a powerful and orchestrated right-wing Christian anti-science movement, which has seen its most appalling and flagrant expression in the Texas State Board of Education under Don McLeroy, who thinks experts are bad guys he needs to “stand up” to. Yes, well, I’m sure when you reach those pearly gates, Don, St. Peter will hand you your harp and halo and say, “Well fought, brave soldier.” At least, I’m sure that’s how the scene plays out in Mac’s rapturous fantasies.

But as the report makes plain, the effort to protect religion via the outright demolition of education is having a disastrous effect, not merely on the minds of students (there’s nothing worse you can do to a mind than rob it of the very will to learn, but the fundies, naturally, would disagree), but on the nation’s economic future.

The biosciences are going to be one of the most important growth industries this century. And with the Christian War on Education in full swing, you can rest assured, that growth won’t be happening here. We’ve long since been on the downward slide towards becoming an intellectual third world country. Now it seems we run the risk of becoming one across the board.

Texans, feel free to bring the findings of this report up when contacting your state senator with your opposition to McLeroy’s appointment. I plan to. It may be a futile effort at this point, but the truth is always worth fighting for. The fact the fundies fear it so much is all the incentive you should need to keep fighting for it.

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.

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”?

Stem cell research at last

I’m pleased, as is anyone in the pro-science camp, at Obama’s expected reversal of Bush’s ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. I especially appreciate these comments he made.

“Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources, it is also about protecting free and open inquiry,” Obama said. “It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

That last is another richly deserved rebuke of the Bush administration, and its kowtowing to fundamentalist ignorance in issues of science. In particular, the Right Wing Cult of the Fetus is driven berserk by the idea that “babies” are being “killed” so that mad scientists can do their freakish lab experiments. The point that the fetuses being used are among those routinely destroyed as surplus by fertility clinics is not the kind of inconvenient fact that will pierce the armor plating of their righteousness. Nor is the fact that these fetuses will still be available for infertile parents who wish to conceive in vitro.

As for the results we may one day enjoy from such research, which are also disputed by the RA crowd (Righteous Anger), well, we cannot say for sure right this minute that, fifty years from now, paraplegics will be dancing the rhumba after having their new spines installed as an outpatient procedure, or that we’ll have eradicated dozens of diseases, or what have you. But the possibility is there, and not to be ignored, and that’s why research is so vital. If we can better the lives of people, we should. That’s basic.

Still, though, sometimes I think conservatives cannot only think long-term, but literally can’t understand anything that doesn’t appear to have an immediate, tangible benefit. It’s as if scientific research isn’t worth doing if it doesn’t work like an ATM, spitting out instant gratification. Get a load of Republican Rep. Eric Cantor’s ignorant and hypocritical whimper, which he tries to couch in terms of the economy.

“Why are we going and distracting ourselves from the economy? This is job No. 1. Let’s focus on what needs to be done,” Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Once more with feeling: Cantor’s party bequeathed us this tattered economy, so that’s quite enough pretense from their side of the aisle that theirs is the party that’s all about fiscal responsibility, thank you kindly. And with the stimulus package now signed, well, let’s say that the l-o-n-g road to economic repair is, at least, being mapped out.

But what’s doubly stupid about Cantor’s remarks is his failure to understand that a country engaging in strong and well-funded scientific research is one whose economy is thriving. Not only does it put researchers to work — you know, jobs — but if their research really does bear fruit, and we begin to see real treatments emerge that we’ve never had before…well, that means money, dammit, and plenty of it. It means medicine we can export, it means more students getting advanced degrees in the sciences due to the increase in jobs in the wake of these new treatments…I mean, there’s no downside.

The only downside to scientific research is when ideology hurls itself bodily in science’s path. I’m glad that, for right now at least, we have a president who respects the role of science in benefiting humanity. And the economy.

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.

Dan McLeroy: stupider than you thought

It’s physically painful to realize that someone this thoroughly idiotic is in charge of the Texas State Board of Education.

If science is limited to only natural explanations but some natural phenomena are actually the result of supernatural causes then science would never be able to discover that truth — not a very good position for science. Defining science to allow for this possibility is just common sense. Science must limit itself to testable explanations not natural explanations. Then the supernaturalist will be just as free as the naturalist to make testable explanations of natural phenomena. The view with the best explanation of the empirical evidence should prevail.

People, that’s thermonuclear stupidity!

Precisely how does McLeroy propose we test for those supernatural causes? Is he implying that supernatural explanations are testable but natural ones are not? How does he propose to differentiate the supernatural from the natural when testing it? Hell, how does he even define the supernatural in any context? Isn’t the word just a sockpuppet for “God”? Of course it is. Seems to me the last sentence of the above quote completely negates all the blather that preceded it, because like it or not, the natural explanations science presents us with are the ones with the best empirical evidence behind them. It’s hardly science’s fault if brainwashed, asstard ideologues like McLeroy just ignore evidence that doesn’t flatter their belief in their sky-fairy-of-choice. (Oops, there I go again trash-talking. I guess I’m due for a Kazim finger-wag.)

McLeroy raises these questions, to appear as if he’s actually intellectually engaged in the issue, but he provides no answers, of course, because he cannot answer. He isn’t interested in explanations for anything, anyway. Life to him is about belief, not knowledge. He’s just looking for a legal strategy, as are all these Liars for Jesus, by which he can shoehorn his religious beliefs into public school classrooms and help throw an entire generation of students back into the 18th century, while the rest of the world barrels along into the 21st. There simply cannot be any limit to the public ridicule these people deserve.

And the mail keeps coming…

The TV show gets fan letters at a volume I certainly never experienced in the years before the internets became the distribution channel it is today. When I was host up until early March of 2004, we had set up the address (tv [at] atheist-community [dot] org) already. But with the only people watching the show being those with nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon than tune in to Austin Access, a good week of letters might be one or two letters, tops. Now they flood in at dozens per day, it seems.

Here are a couple of emails that give a flavor for the kinds of questions people have who write in. It’s great to hear from so many atheists, from all over, who never hesitate to express their gratitude for the work Matt and the whole team does. (And yes, we get letters from Christians, too, more of which is friendly and not of the “I’ll pray for you!” stripe than you might think.)

A fellow named Alexander Altaras asks, in his subject line, a straightforward question: “We don’t trust the Bible as an accurate source, why do we trust the news or any other historical document?” A good question indeed. I answered: Whatever the source of information you’re referring to, you should only find it trustworthy to the degree its claims can be independently confirmed or corroborated. Historians are usually expected to cite their sources, and the good ones do. News reporting has gotten more difficult to trust, because so much of it today is tainted with one type of political bias or another. It’s always a good thing to see if the information being given to you is well supported by facts. It’s why science is trustworthy where religion is not. In science the process of peer review is set up so that scientists can independently check each other’s findings without favoritism tainting the results. Religion has no such self-correcting tool in place. Another point is that religious claims are doubly hard to trust at face value because, unlike history, for example, the people promoting religious claims are doing so in order to defend or proselytize the belief, an agenda that isn’t as often applied when dealing with purely secular matters. So in short, consider the source, consider their reputation, and consider their sources most of all.

A fellow identifying himself only as Bobby, and informing us he’s a 38-year-old Marine and plainclothes narcotics officer (I’m assuming ex-Marine, if he’s a cop now), wants to know “what is the root of [believers’] hatred for the theory of evolution?” Bobby writes, “Why do theists get so offended by the theory of evolution? It is a basic question. I do not understand. I am an Atheist. I do not get offended by religion until it is forced upon me. I do not actively attack religious concepts until I am provoked. Theists behave as if the very IDEA of evolution insults them. They act as if the theory was created to specifically offend them. Why?”

I think much of it has to do with the fact that evolution seems to deny religion’s great promise to them: that they are special creations of a loving god, imbued with souls, which to go on to live in eternal paradise after their bodies die. By treating the development of life as a purely natural process, theists are afraid that evolution denies the divine and thus the chance they’ll get to go to Heaven.

Thing is, I happen to think (and Ken Miller would disagree) evolution does deny this. But it’s hardly the fault of nature, or of science’s methods of learning about nature, if people choose to retreat from reality and embrace irrational beliefs out of fear and wishful thinking.

Now keep in mind that everyone on the TV crew gets these emails, and the above answers to these questions are only my own. The good questions usually spark a stimulating discussion, with some of the other cohosts, like Tracie, offering such beautifully written and thought out responses that I can’t help gritting my teeth she doesn’t get a chance to post here more often than she does. But however the discussion threads turn out, it must be said that we really do have a fine and engaged audience out there, and we’re grateful to the lot of you. Keep watching, and keep the emails coming.