Santorum did not have a good idea

Now and again, some well-meaning but clueless person gets it into their head that teaching creationism in the schools is a good idea — that the clash of ideas is a good pedagogical technique. There are cases where that would be true, but doing it in the public school classroom and hashing over a bad, discredited idea vs. good science is totally inappropriate. Reserve that technique for issues where there is substance on both sides.

But now Jay Mathews is trying to revivify this nonsense in the Washington Post, suggesting that Rick Santorum has a good idea with his plan to “teach the controversy”. He’s done it before, and gotten a predictable response.

Teaching all sides of the evolution issue is supported in opinion polls. But those against it feel more strongly. When I suggested in 2005 that high school biology teaching would be improved by allowing students to debate Darwinism vs. the intelligent design theory, I received more than 400 e-mails. Seventy percent of them said I was an idiot. Many added that I was a dangerous idiot.

Heed your email, Mathews. The majority were right. And your opinion column just reveals that you don’t have the slightest idea what you are talking about.

I respectfully disagree. It is important to note that Santorum and I have different reasons for wanting high schools to allow discussion of intelligent design — the notion that some supernatural force (not necessarily God) brought life to earth. Santorum believes that God had a hand in it. But he wants to avoid injecting religion into schools, so he says classes need only examine the scientific possibility that Darwin was wrong to conclude that life evolved only because of natural processes.

I highlighted part of that paragraph, because it illustrates how wrong Mathews is. No, the Religious Right wants to inject religion into schools; that’s clearly been on their agenda from the very beginning. They want prayer, they want religion classes, and they want to expunge any scientific finding that contradicts the Bible. Santorum and his fellow travelers see intelligent design creationism as a Trojan horse to get god into the classroom.

After his failed exercise in reading Rick Santorum’s mind, an exercise that ignores the paper trail the Religious Right has left us, Mathews turns his magic powers on the minds at the Discovery Institute, and gets that wrong, too.

Advocates of intelligent design at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute have influenced Santorum. They accept many Darwinist concepts, such as the notion that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. They see a weakness in Darwinian theory because of the lack of much evidence of natural precursors to the animal body types that emerged in the Cambrian period 500 million years ago. How did we get from random chemicals to creatures with eyes and spines? They say that gap in knowledge leaves open the possibility of intervention by an outside force.

Many scientists and teachers think the intelligent design folks are only pretending to have an allegiance to science. They seemed sincere to me. Some have doctorates in science. Even if they are fakes, their reliance on the fossil record rather the first book of the Bible qualifies them for a science class debate.

Mathews, look at your email again. You’re an idiot.

The Discovery Institute contains a diverse group of people; some are young earth creationists who completely deny common descent; some accept that the earth is old and that we can trace the derivation of humans from prior forms. What unites them is a categorical rejection of natural mechanisms of evolution; they don’t believe that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. Some of them believe that the ape genome was consciously ransacked by an intelligent designer to build a new species, us, with intent.

The absence of evidence of natural precursors you are babbling about is pure ID propaganda. It’s wrong. We don’t have fossils of these things, that is true, but you have to be thoroughly ignorant of modern biology to think that fossils are the primary source of information about our biological history. We analyze molecules, not bones. And the molecules tell us much about pre-Cambrian relationships.

GAPS? You’re proposing teaching “gaps” in our knowledge? OK, the right answer is to point to a specific question and say, “I don’t know”. It is not right to say “I don’t know, but I’m going to invent a magic ghost to fill in that gap, and I’m going to call him Jesus.”

Now Mathews claims to see “sincerity” in the intelligent design creationists, which is nice and charitable, but not credible. Philip Johnson has a doctorate, sure…he’s a lawyer, and he adopted this ID nonsense when he had a midlife crisis and also became a fundamentalist Christian. Bill Dembski has a doctorate in math, and also thinks ID is a modern version of the Logos gospel. Jonathan Wells has a doctorate in biology (amazing!), and also went into his graduate program at the behest of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, so that he could destroy Darwinism from within. They are sincere Christians. They are not sincere scientists.

I would like to see evidence that creationists rely on the fossil record. Mathews himself claims it’s about gaps; the Discovery Institute has not proposed that the way to advance their cause is by more intense study of paleontology.

So Mathews knows nothing about what the creationists actually argue. Does he know anything about biology? No, he does not.

I think Darwin was right, but boring.

It was hard for me to become interested in classroom explanations of natural selection when I was a student. Introducing a contrary theory like intelligent design and having students discuss its differences from Darwinism would enliven the class. It would also teach the scientific method. Did Darwin follow the rules of objective scientific inquiry? Does intelligent design?

Grrrr. BORING? You’re a goddamned ignorant moron, Mathews. Do not blame the instructional failures of your lousy teachers, or your inattentiveness in class, on Charles Darwin.

Right now, we have a wealth of wonderful material that can be taught in the classroom, and great texts to do it with. I highly recommend the books of Sean Carroll; I’m using his Making of the Fittest in our introductory biology classrooms right now, and it does a marvelous job of explaining the molecular evidence behind evolution. I’ve also used Endless Forms Most Beautiful in my developmental biology class — it’s great at summarizing evo-devo. We’ve also used Weiner’s Beak of the Finch as an example of modern population genetics; Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge for the intersection of paleontology and molecular biology; and Shubin’s Your Inner Fish for human evolution. These are real pedagogical tools and interesting scientific issues that can be and have been used routinely in good science classes, without resorting to contrived nonsense.

Boring? Jebus, Mathews, you aren’t competent to lecture us on how to teach biology if you think this entire field of science is uninteresting…so uninteresting that you want to introduce crackpots and wackaloons to liven it up. Hey, how about clowns, too? That would have perked you right up in your lackluster student days — sure, let’s just fill the science classroom with a whole fucking parade of clowns!

You know what classes students really find dry and boring, and complain about frequently? Math classes. I anxiously await the patented Jay Mathews solution to make math exciting — it will probably involve lying a lot, putting mathematical concepts on trial, and inventing out of whole cloth solutions to problems that have resisted actual mathematical efforts to answer. Maybe magic tricks? Perhaps he thinks this old S. Harris cartoon is a legitimate example of good math teaching style?

I teach at the college level, and I do discuss intelligent design creationism in the classroom. But first, I spend a couple of weeks discussing the scientific evidence for evolution intensively; I prepare the students with the background to analyze the questions legitimately. And then I don’t present creationism as something that has to be addressed scientifically, but as a social and political problem — and we go through a subset of their arguments and show how they neglect and contradict the scientific evidence that the students already know. It is most definitely not because we need creationism to make the science lively; it’s because creationism is a pain in the ass lie that the students should be prepared to cope with.

(Also on Sb)

It does look vaguely religious, doesn’t it?

In a completely unsurprising decision, Jessica Ahlquist has won her court case, in which she was complaining that a prayer banner was an inappropriate object to hang in a public school. The defendants tried to argue that it was “an historical memento of the school’s founding days, with a predominantly secular purpose.” Judge for yourself. It’s the banner titled “School Prayer”, which begins, “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen.” Somehow, the judge in the case was not fooled and recognized that it seemed to be rather obviously religious in tone, and has ordered it taken down.

Next thing you know, these religious gomers will try to argue that creationism is a secular, scientific theory. No one is going to be fooled by that, are they?


We’re all aware of the intermittent service failures. Last I heard, it was caused by some hard drive difficulties, and a crack team of kobolds has been dispatched to excavate the relic out of the lava pits and hammer an enchanted red gold filigree into the platters to improve their performance. There may be further absences while the device is worked over on the anvil, but then all shall be well, barring drow or faerie-fire incursions.

At least, that’s what it sounded like.

I’d been wondering about that

I don’t know about where you are, but this has been a strange winter here in Minnesota. We’ve had two snow “storms” so far, that did little more than dust the place with snow that melted away in these bizarrely odd warm days we’ve had. It’s cold, windy, and snowing lightly today, but otherwise, this was the first Christmas of Color I’ve experienced since moving to Minnesota.

There’s a meteorological explanation, though, and it’s not global warming. It’s a La Nina year, and the Arctic Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation have been coincidentally conspiring to allow air to flow across the country from west to east with no snarls that might have led to interesting weather.

I’ve been grateful for the relatively boring and safe weather — apparently, it’s going to get worse this spring, which means more nights when my wife is stranded in her cold distant workplace and I have to keep warm by piling on the blankets.

(Also on Sb)

FtB needs a better logo!

Lo and these many years ago, we had a logo contest on Pharyngula. Only the old-timers will remember it; it was pre-Scienceblogs, even, in the dim and distant days when getting two thousand hits a day was a triumph. Readers submitted suggestions for a general logo that we could all use on atheist blogs. There were many clever suggestions, and absolutely no resolution — like typical atheists, everyone had their own favorite and no one could say, “this is the one”. Although eventually, by mere common practice and usage, one did emerge because, I think, it was easy: a red letter “A” in the Zapfino font (you may have seen it around).

Anyway, let’s do it again. We’ve got a more limited goal this time around. Have you noticed that the freethoughtblogs design is, well, kinda ugly? We need a better FtB logo; something clean, elegant, simple, and pretty. Something I could tattoo on my forehead and no one would be confused and think it was a malignant growth. Help us out and come up with something for us!

We have a few ideas. Here’s a set of designs we had scribbled up before the launch of the site — I don’t know how we ended up with the specific one we’re using. You could just tell us that one of these is superior, or you could use them as inspiration for your own, or you could go off in a completely different direction.

Send them in to me, and I’ll screen out the winged penises* and other such suggestions, and pass them onto the other bloggers here and get their opinion…and the best I’ll post here for your input. We shall make the site prettier, pixel by pixel.

*This was not a suggestion. Please, no winged penises.

Crap. I’m going to get a hundred winged penises, aren’t I?

Why I am an atheist – Crys

I am an atheist because I read.

I was raised in Rome Italy by a vaguely Catholic mother in a pretty Catholic country. However, since I was not forced to go to church outside of Christmas and Easter, I didn’t take my first communion until I was 11 (and even then I studied my catechism with an extremely liberal nun) and my upbringing was never based on the rules and guilt-trips that are typical of the Catholic faith I did not immediately question the existence of God or the church itself. I just was not exposed to anything that was so explicitly divorced from reality from the perspective of a child. The first thing that I realized was that prayer was just not working out for me. This lead me to thinking, am I doing it right? What does being a Catholic even mean? What am I attesting to when I label myself at one? At the age of 12 I picked up the Bible and actually started to read it.

I am an atheist because I’ve experimented.

By age 13 I was studying ancient Roman history as is to be expected given the city in which I grew up. It struck me that the content of the Bible was no less fantastical than the wonderful stories I was learning about the gods that the Romans believed in. I came to the conclusion that all religions must be equally true. As my upbringing very much encouraged the belief in the superstitious and magic, as my mother is still a strong believer in everything from faith healings to fairies, I had now become a polytheist, I laid flower offerings at Minerva’s temple in the Roman forum, I practiced Wicca and dabbled in pretty much any forgotten religion I could get my hands on.

I am an atheist because I reasoned.

Although I remained a pagan until the age of 17 when I first went to college, it had become more of a ritual than a true belief. I enjoyed keeping holidays like All Hallow’s Eve, I used my prayers as a source of comfort being in a strange new country where I had to adjust. I didn’t submit my faith to the sort of scrutiny I eventually knew it deserved. It was simply something to fall back on, something to keep me company, but never something I openly shared or overly contemplated. I began to transition out of feelings of faith as I made new friends, as I realized that if I was ashamed to share with others my beliefs, it must mean that they are completely ridiculous. I had now become an agnostic.

I am an atheist because I was honest with myself.

I did not identify myself as an atheist until I was 20. By then I was in my third year in college and had fully understood the scientific method. I had shied away from the term “atheist” because I was under the misguided notion that being an atheist meant being absolutely certain that there was no God. To me, this seemed as obtuse and arrogant as being absolutely 100% certain that there is a God. However once I began to fully appreciate the scientific method I realized that this was not the case. There is nothing in this life that we can really be absolutely 100% certain about, but I began to see my lack of belief like a null hypothesis.

I am an atheist because there has been no reason for me to believe in any God. I have not been presented with nor come across a single miraculous or inexplicable event that contradicts my assumption that no God exists. However, this does not mean that such an event could never happen. The day I experience something that would give credence to a God I am perfectly happy to refute my null hypothesis, but until that day comes, it holds strong.


Patriarchy knows best

We’re an equal opportunity religion basher here at Pharyngula, so after ridiculing the Islamic attitude towards female genitals, it’s only fair that we look at the other major Middle Eastern religion, Judaism and its extremists.

And in Jerusalem, they are having a conference on innovations in gynecology — it’s Science! In the 21st Century! Yay!

Except…women will not be allowed to speak at the event. They can attend, but will be segregated into a separate section.It’s being held at the Puah Institute, which is apparently a bastion of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy.

As far as Puah is concerned, it operates on a strictly kosher basis, as required by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. While there are women on its board of directors, its public face is strictly male, and the two sexes are not allowed to mix at its events.

To be sure, not all sectors of the ultra-Orthodox community support these exclusionary tactics, explains Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a Hebrew University sociology professor and author of the recently published book Theocratic Democracy. “But most people are too afraid to speak out.”

Isn’t that typical? Whether it’s Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, the exclusionary extremists all rise to prominence and start imposing their superstitious nonsense on everyone else…while the more numerous moderates tremble and hesitate to speak out against folly, and start looking for compromises. You cannot build a better world when you start by compromising with idiocy.

Female genital mutilation has medical benefits?

There is a very good question which I’m pleased to see that an expert Islamic cleric has finally seen fit to answer. Why mutilate female genitals at all? What purpose does it have? I confess to uncharitably assuming that it was all about controlling women’s sexual activity, but I was unfair. They have perfectly good reasons for chopping and hacking at little girls crotches with jagged sharp instruments.

Female circumcision has not been prescribed for no reason, rather there is wisdom behind it and it brings many benefits.

Mentioning some of these benefits, Dr. Haamid al-Ghawaabi says:

The secretions of the labia minora accumulate in uncircumcised women and turn rancid, so they develop an unpleasant odour which may lead to infections of the vagina or urethra. I have seen many cases of sickness caused by the lack of circumcision.

Circumcision reduces excessive sensitivity of the clitoris which may cause it to increase in size to 3 centimeters when aroused, which is very annoying to the husband, especially at the time of intercourse.

Another benefit of circumcision is that it prevents stimulation of the clitoris which makes it grow large in such a manner that it causes pain.

Circumcision prevents spasms of the clitoris which are a kind of inflammation.

Man, that’s all so true. Don’t you just hate it when you’re having intercourse with a woman, and she starts getting aroused? I suppose snipping off the clitoris is one way of dealing with it (the ladies really do cool down fast when you start waving a knife around), but I’ve found it more humane to keep a bucket of cold water next to the bed. As a bonus, a good cold water splashing also flushes out the strange and repulsive slippery dampness that so unpleasantly oozes out of their vaginas.

Although, come to think of it, the guy giving all that advice probably doesn’t have to worry too much about aroused women.