The featured speaker at this year’s National Science Teacher Association conference in Boston is…Mayim Bialik.
The lucky ones among you are saying right now, “who?”. Others may know her from her television work, but maybe don’t know the full story behind her ‘science’ activism.
She’s an actor who plays Sheldon’s girlfriend on Big Bang Theory. Right there, as far as I’m concerned, we have a major strike against her: I detest that show. It’s the equivalent of a minstrel show for scientists, where scientists are portrayed as gross caricatures of the real thing — socially inept, egotistical jerks who think rattling off an equation is a sign of intelligence. I think it’s literally an anti-science communication show. Who in their right mind would want to be anything like Sheldon, the narcissistic nerd? Who would want to work with people like that? The message it’s sending instead is that if you are a superficial asshole, you should become a scientist, where you will be loved for personality traits that would get you shunned in civilized company. (We also see the same phenomenon in atheism, where so many people think it’s a great excuse to be the insensitive Vulcan.)
But OK, that’s a matter of taste, I will admit, and maybe not enough of a reason to be appalled to think she is going to be speaking to science teachers (although it’s enough for me). And she does have a Ph.D. in neuroscience, you have to respect that.
Just one look at its advisory board should tell you all you need to know. For instance, there’s Dr. Lauren Feder, who bills herself as specializing in “primary care medicine, pediatrics and homeopathy” and has been a frequent contributor to that bastion of quackery and antivaccine looniness, Mothering Magazine, where she recommended homeopathic remedies to treat whooping cough. It doesn’t get much quackier than that. But Feder is just the beginning. Also on the Holistic Moms advisory board is the grand dame of the antivaccine movement herself, the woman who arguably more than anyone else is responsible for starting the most recent iteration of the antivaccine movement in the U.S. Yes, I’m talking about Barbara Loe Fisher, the founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), a bastion of antivaccine propaganda since the 1980s. She’s not the only antivaccine activist on the advisory board, though. There’s also Peggy O’Mara, publisher of Mothering Magazine and Sherri Tenpenny, who is described right on the Holistic Moms website as, “one of America’s most knowledgeable and outspoken physicians, warning against the negative impact of vaccines on health.” Then there’s Dr. Lawrence Rosen, “integrative” pediatrician who appeared at the NVIC “vaccine safety conference” back in 2009 with Barbara Loe Fisher and Andrew Wakefield. In fact, Barbara Loe Fisher, Sherri Tenpenny, and Lauren Feder are featured very prominently on the Holistic Moms Network page on vaccination.
But that’s not all. If there’s one more thing that should tell you all you need to know about the Holistic Moms Network approach to science-based medicine, then take a look at its sponsors: Boiron (manufacturer of the homeopathic remedy for flu known as Oscillococcinum), the Center for Homeopathic Education (and I bet it is homeopathic too), the National Center for Homeopathy, and a whole bunch of other purveyors of woo and quackery.
And he has a lot more to say, as usual.
So why is this woo-peddling, vaccination-denying sitcom star being featured as a speaker at NSTA? I don’t know. Because she has a Ph.D. and pretends to be socially inept on TV? That doesn’t seem to be a good reason. Will Jenny McCarthy be invited to deliver a keynote next year? How about Ken Ham — he’s very into ‘science’ education, you know. Gosh, if we’re going to open the door to quacks, the pool of potential speakers just expanded immensely! Joseph Mercola? Andrew Weil? Deepak Chopra!
Tsk, NSTA. Do you vet your speakers at all?
Here’s another twist on the problematic trend to hire more temporary/part-time/adjunct faculty at universities. It’s a disgraceful abuse of skilled academics and good teachers — would you believe that some schools hire adjuncts to teach four courses a semester (a brutal load, let me tell you) and pay them $16,000 per year? Who would be insane enough to accumulate all that college debt, then invest 4+ years in an advanced study program to get a Ph.D., for a poverty-level income? But that’s where we stand.
Here’s the other ugly side of the problem. The University of Idaho needed someone to teach microbiology, so they carried out a ‘national’ search for a temporary microbiologist, offering $6-8,000 per semester for a one year position with no promise of a continuation. Moscow, Idaho is a truly lovely place, but would you pack up and move across the country to spend one year in Moscow for maybe $16,000, and then probably have to move somewhere else again after that year was up?
No, you would not, if you had a choice. If you were really desperate, maybe.
But they hired someone. Someone local. They got Gordon Wilson who teaches at the New Saint Andrews College in Moscow. New Saint Andrews got some fame from Christopher Hitchens; Hitchens did a debate tour with Doug Wilson, the founder of the school. It’s notorious for a number of other reasons, too, including this stunning list:
In some circumstances, the penalty for adultery should be execution.
Women should be permitted to date or “court” only with their fathers’ permission and, if they’re Christian, date and court with only other Christians.
Woman “was created to be dependent and responsive to a man.”
A rapist should pay the victim’s father a bride price and, if the father approves, should marry the victim.
Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people are “sodomites” and “people with foul sexual habits.” He favors the “exile [of] some homosexuals, depending on the circumstances and the age of the victim.”
Cursing one’s parents is “deserving of punishment by death. Parental failure is not a defense.” Christian parents “need not be afraid to lay it on” when spanking their children. If fact, in Wilson’s world view, “godly discipline” should include spanking 2-year-olds for such “sins” as whining.
“A rapist should pay the victim’s father a bride price and, if the father approves, should marry the victim.”
“Slavery as it existed in the South … was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence. … There has never been a multiracial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.”
It’s also an incestuous little place of marginal academic credibility.
The faculty at New St. Andrews is hardly diverse. Several are N.S.A. graduates who went on to do master’s degrees elsewhere and came back to teach. Only 4 of 17 faculty members have Ph.D.’s (those few are always addressed as “Doctor” — proof that N.S.A. has not entirely escaped the intellectual insecurity typical of evangelical colleges). Doug Wilson’s son, son-in-law and youngest brother teach at the college. “Someone’s going to say, ‘Isn’t that a little cozy?’ ” Wilson admits. “Part of modernity’s negative legacy is the pretense of objectivity. All institutions thrive on interconnectedness, affection and loyalty.”
Read their statement of faith. Of greatest relevance is that they say:
In the beginning, God created the material universe from nothing in six ordinary days. He spoke, and by the Word of His power, it was. Our science on the nature and time of this event must be determined in full submission to the Word of God.
That’s right. The University of Idaho has just hired a young earth creationist, biblical literalist, and racist evangelical Christian to teach microbiology. UI biology students: you are getting ripped off.
For a sample of the mental gymnastics involved in creationist “science,” look no further than Wilson’s contribution [PDF] to a 2004 conference, in which he posits that God created every living thing with extra “gene sets” for carnivory, venom, pathogenicity, and other “natural evils,” which were, metaphorically, stored under glass to be activated by the Deity in the event of human malfeasance.
He’s going to be teaching microbiology.
He says he won’t be teaching creationism in the class — I don’t believe him — but this is what he does consider legitimate to teach.
I made it clear 9 years ago and this semester that I wasn’t going to promote my views or disparage evolutionary views in class. That said, I have stated that I do not share the views of common descent held by the main stream scientific community. Which is well with in my rights to do. The only thing that I have presented (briefly) is a distinction between historical science and empirical science, and that conclusions drawn from the former don’t have the high level of certainty as conclusions drawn from the latter. This distinction is not a creationist invention. Ernst Mayr holds to this as well. The conclusions drawn from historical science are as good as the presuppositions on which they are based. This was simply a moment to encourage students to exercise some critical thinking skills in assessing truth claims of the scientific community.
I do not consider Mayr the sine qua non of the science of philosophy (pretty far from it, actually), but you don’t get to use him to defend Ham’s idiocy. All biologists acknowledge a historical component to our science, but we don’t treat it as a pejorative, nor do we claim that it lacks observational power. Mayr’s thoughts on the subject are quite clear.
Despite the passing of a century before this new branch of philosophy fully developed, its eventual form is based on Darwinian concepts. For example, Darwin introduced historicity into science. Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science—the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.
For example, three different scenarios have been proposed for the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous: a devastating epidemic; a catastrophic change of climate; and the impact of an asteroid, known as the Alvarez theory. The first two narratives were ultimately refuted by evidence incompatible with them. All the known facts, however, fit the Alvarez theory, which is now widely accepted. The testing of historical narratives implies that the wide gap between science and the humanities that so troubled physicist C. P. Snow is actually nonexistent—by virtue of its methodology and its acceptance of the time factor that makes change possible, evolutionary biology serves as a bridge.
So basically, Wilson is saying,
Mayr used the word “historical”, therefore our wacky weird abuse of the word “historical” is valid. He’s an idiot.
The University of Idaho just hired an incompetent religious crackpot who thinks black people were happier as slaves and who despises women to teach a biology course.
And everyone is going to sit back and be fucking fine with it. And if you point out that this man isn’t fit to be pretending to be a microbiologist, he’s going to whine about the persecution of Christians.
One more story of academic inside baseball — I’ve been following John Wilkins, a brilliant philosopher of science who just can’t get a job, and I’ve been sensing waves of resentment at the rotten state of academia. I will be the first to tell you that I’ve been exceptionally lucky and privileged to get a job at a university that does a lot of things right, and one reason I can criticize freely is that UMM actually handles academic positions well.
Elsewhere…not so great.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to get any kind of academic job at all, other than the miserable, harrowing, exploitive position sometimes called “adjunct”, or sometimes “lecturer” — temporary positions in which the instructor is hired on a per course basis. Bad jobs are driving out the good as university administrations cut corners, and somehow, it’s always the faculty who suffer the first painful snips.
This is the time of year when high school students come around to visit various universities and make decisions about where they want to go next year. Are you one of them? Or perhaps you’re a parent of a prospective student? You’ve got some power. Universities may be courting you, because they want your tuition dollars, or they see you have some skills that would bring honor to the school. Use your clout. Ask questions.
Here are some questions I wish more prospective students were knowledgeable enough to ask.
Ask, “Who teaches your introductory or service classes?” You may be thinking ahead to those lovely upper-level courses with the big names teaching them and the shiny lab equipment, but before you get there you’ll be expected to take courses outside your major — service courses in disciplines like math and English — that have big enrollments. At some universities, those will be taught by an ever-rotating set of temporary faculty called adjuncts. They are often treated like dirt, poorly paid, and given overloads. Often they’re so poorly paid they have to take adjunct positions at multiple colleges to make ends meet.
Those course are important. You’ll take a lot of them. You want them to be well-taught. And that’s precisely where many schools cut corners on the quality of the education.
Ask, “How many of the faculty in your department are temporary faculty?” There are a great many colleges, some of them quite prestigious, where the swarm of adjuncts outnumbers the tenure-track faculty. Tenured faculty are in a privileged position where they get more money and lighter teaching loads, while the adjuncts are being victimized. Do not go to those colleges. Tell them why.
Now adjuncts are often very good teachers — they have to be deeply committed to the profession to put up with the crap they have to take — but they are often spread thin and given frustratingly difficult workloads. My wife was an adjunct for a while, and she was commuting all over eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey to cover her scattered positions, on top of all the coursework. I think she was a marvelous professor, but the burdens compromised her ability to deliver to the students to the best of her ability.
Ask, “Can I talk to some of the other instructors?” I know the runaround. You’ll go to the university, they’ll have a lovely canned presentation of all the benefits, and you might get to sit in on a course or meet for half an hour with Professor So-and-So, who will show off their lab and talk about the great things about being in their profession. Ask to talk to any of the people who teach that first year course in your major; if you’re lucky, Professor So-and-So will say, “That’s me!” and you’re off to a good start. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll be led to a cramped office divided into cubicles with a group of temporary faculty crammed into it.
They’ll probably still say nice things about being at the university. Partly because they do love their job, but also partly because they’re in terror of losing it.
It would be very nice if more students and their parents paid attention to the growing inequity within academic ranks, and if the tuition-paying people would regard that as important, and that the voting citizens would recognize that their state legislators are all conspiring to strangle higher education. It would be especially nice if students refused to support universities that were happily screwing over their teachers.
But I’m a realist. I know what university PR departments do and emphasize and tell prospective students is important: will your education get you a job after graduation, and how is the football team doing? Those are great smokescreens to hide the decay behind the scenes.
I’ve had a few prospective students ask the really important questions: will I learn many great and interesting things in my years at this institution, will it make me a better and wiser person, is this school investing in improving the educational experience? Those are the students I really want to keep.
By the way, I can tell you to ask those questions because I know UMM will pass them with ease: almost all of our introductory and service courses are taught by tenure-track faculty, we have almost no temporary faculty (occasionally some, to cover faculty on sabbatical leave, for instance), and I can walk you right down the hall and introduce you to each of the professors who teach every one of our courses, and they’ll be right there in those same offices when you come back in the Fall.
(This has been an advertisement for the University of Minnesota Morris. An advertisement I enthusiastically endorse.)
That’s not good news. The good news will be “I’m at #scio14“, because I’ve got a lot of traveling ahead of me. And it’s been one of those days that I always dread: the day I have to return tests in genetics. I write hard tests…well, not really that hard conceptually, but I avoid questions of a form that allows them to be answered with rote execution of a formula, which means that students who are struggling to understand often end up taking weird detours in their answers, and do poorly. And then there’s the usual bimodal grade distribution of a class that emphasizes logic and methodology; some find it trivial, others just freak out. Everyone is miserable, and it makes lecturing no fun at all.
But I can’t do otherwise. I’ll throw more practice problems at them, and drill them through the process over and over again, and usually, most of them will make it through to the end.
Anyway, now I’m off to the airport. Long drive, long night, get into Raleigh-Durham sometime tomorrow. Then I have to be the student for a few days and learn.
I hope there isn’t an exam at the end.
For decades, students at Bob Jones University who sought counseling for sexual abuse were told not to report it because turning in an abuser from a fundamentalist Christian community would damage Jesus Christ. Administrators called victims liars and sinners.
But wait! Then they hired a Christian consulting group to independently help them grapple with the problem. That’s a step in the right direction.
But wait again! Now they’ve fired their consultants, because they were
going beyond the originally outlined intentions, that is, they were coming up with criticisms and answers they didn’t like.
This is how BJU handles assault complaints.
Erin Burchwell said that when she accused a university employee of sexually assaulting her in the late 1990s, “their idea of an investigation and counseling was to ask me what I was wearing and whether it was tight, and to tell me not to talk to anyone about it because it wouldn’t look good for me.” She said university officials alternated between “saying it never even happened and saying I was a willing participant.”
I doubt that I have many readers among the student body at BJU, but in case there are any, here’s my advice: get out while you can. Transfer to a real college.
Zack Kopplin has a very thorough exposé of the Responsive Ed charter schools in Texas. Charter schools are an alternative to the standard public school system, but they receive public funding, your tax dollars, and are therefore required to follow the same legal strictures as all public schools. And that means no religious indoctrination.
The Responsive Ed schools are simply yet another manifestation of the creationist ideal: they teach creationism flat out, and they also mislead and cast false doubts on evolutionary science. They also use the Christian bible as a source.
Outright creationism appears in Responsive Ed’s section on the origins of life. It’s not subtle. The opening line of the workbook section, just as the opening line of the Bible, declares, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.”
There’s the usual ignorance of how science works, too.
Another Responsive Ed section claims that evolution cannot be tested, something biologists have been doing for decades. It misinforms students by claiming, “How can scientists do experiments on something that takes millions of years to accomplish? It’s impossible.”
The Texas legislature ought to be sitting up in alarm at these gross illegalities…but as it turns out, state senator Dan Patrick, chair of the Texas Senate Education Committee, is also promoting Responsive Ed. Sorry, Texas, you’re doomed. As long as you keep electing these assnuggets to run your educational system, you’re not going to have competent education.
It’s not just evolution, either. Kopplin lists all the lies that are taught about history, other countries, feminism, stem cells, gay rights, sex ed, you name it.
Texas: screwing over another generation. Thanks, guys.
We’ve just begun a temporary cease fire in the War on Christmas (have no fear, Bill O’Reilly will start firing salvos of hot air again next October), which was a ridiculous contrivance: atheists aren’t fighting against Christmas, we’re just here. We’ve also lately seen that the Republican party is becoming increasingly creationist — they’re signing up for a War on Evolution. What’s really going on, as Charles Blow explains, is that the fanatical right has found the war metaphor a useful tool for rallying idiots.
But I believe that something else is also at play here, something more cynical. I believe this is a natural result of a long-running ploy by Republican party leaders to play on the most base convictions of conservative voters in order to solidify their support. Convince people that they’re fighting a religious war for religious freedom, a war in which passion and devotion are one’s weapons against doubt and confusion, and you make loyal soldiers.
They need a War on Something to feel commitment, whether it’s a War on Terror or a War on White People or whatever. The important things are that 1) it has to be a war on an abstraction, so there isn’t actually any risk of sacrifice, 2) the promoters of this “war” hasten to reassure everyone that they are going to battle to pander to The People, and 3) The People are eager to reciprocate by affirming their support for the promoters. It’s a good game.
Now the latest: there is a War on Shakespeare, announced on the incredibly credible pages of the Wall Street Journal opinion section, where reason always goes to die.
Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the "Empire," UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.
It’ll be interesting to see if this one gets any traction. The People would rather not read Shakespeare — only out-of-touch liberal elitist academics who attend the MLA do that — but I suspect that won’t matter. They don’t have any real commitment to Christianity, either, but nothing will rile ‘em up more than criticizing religion, so I can imagine them happily putting some old Elizabethan dude on a banner and waving it. It also has the virtue of being a totally imaginary war, just the way they like it.
For a good corrective, just read this article on what the UCLA English department actually did. They still teach Shakespeare — I imagine that there are many faculty who actually like Shakespeare.
Never mind that UCLA probably got rid of the three single-author course requirements because single-author courses are tough to teach, and can be murder to take (guess what? Not everybody likes Chaucer enough to spend 15 weeks on him, and that’s OK). Never mind that the UCLA English major still requires plenty of historical literature classes, including Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton. Never mind that students don’t actually have to take a gender or race studies course, as they’re two of several options for fulfilling the breadth requirement. Those are but irrelevant facts, but since said facts involve giving students a choice to take a course on Queer Literature since 1855 (Tennessee Williams? James Baldwin? Gertrude Stein? Oh no!), they surely herald the continuing descent into Gomorrah.
It might still play with the crowds, though. Gays and women and blacks replacing white English guy? As good an excuse for an apocalypse as any.
She tears into a phenomenon that bothers me, too: white evangelical ministers jumping ship for atheism, being embraced by atheists, and tainting atheism with the Christian culture. In particular, there’s this awful parasite, Ryan Bell, who’s only just trying out atheism for a year, which is simply ridiculous — it’s not a set of superficial practices, it’s a mindset. What’s he going to do at the end of the year, erase his brain?
A thriving brand of secular tourism can now be definitively filed under the category “stuff white people like”: Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta has sponsored a crowd-funding campaign for a white male former pastor named Ryan Bell who—in a bit of brilliant PR stagecraft—“decided to…give atheism a try” for a year. As a result of his “experiment” Bell was fired from two Christian schools. Currently the campaign has far exceeded its $5,000 goal, generating over $16,000 from 700 plus donors in one day. Bell joins a jam-packed, largely white, mostly Christian cottage industry of religious leaders who are capitalizing off of untapped reserves of atheist dollars, adulation and publicity by jumping onto the “maverick ex-pastor” bandwagon.
But there’s more to it than that. American culture as a whole tends to be racist, and atheists are following the majority.
In studies conducted by Princeton University researchers, white job seekers with criminal records were slightly more likely to be called back for and/or offered entry-level jobs than African American job seekers with no criminal record. According to lead researcher Devah Pager, “Even whites with criminal records received more favorable treatment (17%) than blacks without criminal records (14%). The rank ordering of (these) groups…is painfully revealing of employer preferences: race continues to play a dominant role in shaping employment opportunities, equal to or greater than the impact of a criminal record.”
That’s the problem: that racism cuts people off at the level of denying them opportunities, so they don’t get a chance to demonstrate competence, providing a self-perpetuating basis for the myth that they’re less qualified. It’ll never end unless everyone consciously opens the doors and encourages more participation; unless we recognize the handicap that assumed white dominance places on all others who have slightly more melanin.
She also points out one egregious example of failure by atheist organizations:
For example, although many atheists profess a commitment to ‘science and reason’ there are still no atheist STEM initiatives that acknowledge the egregious lack of STEM K-12 and college access for students of color. In their zeal to brand predominantly religious communities as backward, unenlightened and unsophisticated in the exceptionalist ways of Western rationality, atheist organizations are MIA when it comes to discussions about STEM college pipelining, STEM literacy and culturally responsive recruitment and retention of STEM scholars and professionals of color in academia.” While white atheists give jobs, “atheist” pulpits and big bucks to American secular tourists numerous black churches support STEM tutoring, mentoring, college access and scholarship programs to confront the gaping educational divide between white and black America.
There are, unfortunately, a substantial number of atheists who declare that anything beyond simply stating there is no god is ‘mission creep’. They can cheer when a prominent scientist like Richard Dawkins endorses atheism, but recognizing that a commitment to science means a heck of a lot more than clapping really hard at a talk is too much for them. They like science, and isn’t atheism supposed to be just about affirming what they already like? Oh, and of course, affirming how stupid people are who don’t like the things we do.
But taking that next step and realizing that a commitment to science means investing and working towards expanding knowledge of science is hard. Exercising political will is hard. Demanding social change is hard. But that’s what atheists need to do if they are to be something more than an empty label.
I’ve been seeing first-hand what it takes to expand an idea, and atheism isn’t doing it. Science is. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to people at HHMI and NIH, and their focus is crystal clear. They prioritize getting science done, and they don’t give a damn whether it is a white hand or a brown one doing it.
The demographic trends are perfectly obvious: America is going to become a majority-minority country in the next few decades (states like California and Texas are already there), which means white people aren’t going to be the dominant default anymore. At the same time, when these grant agencies look at who is doing science, they’re mostly white and minority populations are largely excluded. They can do the math, they’re scientists. It means we can’t afford to discriminate against the largest subpopulation as a pool of potential scientists.
So there are programs in place at all the big science funding agencies to encourage an expansion of that pool, before the trends kill us. Even my little HHMI grant is designed with the goal of giving underserved populations a chance to do science at the undergraduate level.* These represent commitments of money and time to give those who are denied by default assumptions an opportunity to prove themselves. That’s what we need more of, not just lip service.
I know all the major atheist organizations either have a narrower goal, or are making major efforts to grow the atheist community. If your goal is to just grow your membership, it’s always tempting to just focus on the people you’ve already got, and just try to get more. But grabbing a greater share of a shrinking subpopulation is short-term thinking. Long term, you have to invest in recruiting from the faster-growing subset — and the atheist organizations that are still going to be here in the future need to make that commitment now.
*By the way, women are not considered an underserved population in undergraduate education any more. We have no problem getting women involved in entry-level science — the problems come later for women, when it’s time for promotion and moving on to professional status. That’s a ceiling minorities hit as well; these are problems that have to be addressed at multiple levels.