A Critical Thinking Course You Just Won’t Believe

I asked and received permission to share the following story. I was told that was fine, so long as I withheld the student’s last name, which I am glad to oblige…

Dear fellow atheists,

I’ve been having an ongoing issue in my Critical Thinking class that I’m taking this semester at college; it’s a private for-profit secular institution. The problem is not so much with the class itself, but with the professor who teaches it. I’ve brought up the issue casually with my academic department and they have expressed their belief that it is a non-issue. Unless I’m willing to withdraw from the course and have it appear on my transcript, I’m forced to stay in it for the remainder of the term. That’s why I’m coming to you in the hope that you could provide me with some coping advice. I’m not kidding; this class is driving me completely insane.

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with my professor along with another student during our class break. At one point she asked me to provide an example of a belief I had that I didn’t realize I had. Confused by the question, I asked her to elaborate. She gave me her own example of how she used to believe God was a punishing God, but then came to know Him as a loving and caring God. Right off the bat I informed her that I couldn’t think of anything as significant as her example, since I personally do not believe in anything supernatural or paranormal. It was then that she moved forward with the conversation by asking me, “You don’t even believe in the paranormal?” My adamant stance on the subject clearly bothered her, especially when I stated that many supernatural and paranormal claims could be easily refuted with scientific evidence. My professor’s adult son passed away several years ago, and she replied “My son is around me all the time and communicates with me every day”. I assured her that I was not intending to take away any personal experience she had.

The next day, she asked a couple of students what we had learned from Chapter 2 of our Critical Thinking textbook. The answer I gave was, “I interpreted the chapter to mean that beliefs are subjective truths and facts are objective truths”. For some reason my answer appeared to offend her. Out of all the students’ answers, she wrote mine on the board and asked me to give examples of beliefs and facts. I explained to her that my personal opinion on what makes something a “fact” is something that was observable, measurable, and testable. She then brought up the subject of ghosts and EVP recordings, and challenged me to refute the “evidence” shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures provide. “How do you explain the EVP recordings, and the fact that the voices respond directly to the questions!” I’ll be honest with you, I truly wanted to laugh and ask her if she seriously thought those shows were conclusive evidence of paranormal phenomena. In fact, I did, I just didn’t laugh. I explained to her that these shows were not reliable evidence for anything since they are entertainment programs. EVP’s were easily explained away by many sources of interference including the pareidolia effect. But she insisted on reminding me that I still could not prove that they were not, in fact, actual recorded ghost voices. I agreed and ended by saying that it was up to her and anyone else in the class to research natural explanations on their own if they wanted to.

The following week, one of the students felt the need to bring up a story of how she had seen a ghost in her house “last night”. Her totally unbelievable and laughable story included the ghost calling out her name, leaving a black hand-print on her shoulder which lasted for two hours (but no photographic evidence), and how her hair floated up in the air. Maybe it was just the way she told it that made it seem so unconvincing, nevertheless the entire class, including the professor, was captivated by her haunting story. So what does the teacher do? She looks right at me and asks me to explain her story. I guess being the only skeptic in the class meant I was the only one capable of dissecting it. “Do you believe her story?” I asked the professor to which she replied with a “yes”. I asked her what evidence she had to believe the claim, and she stated, “Because she told me. I have no reason to disbelieve her”. I then went into the whole spiel about how all claims are not created equal, such as someone telling you a ghost left a black hand print on their shoulder as opposed to her ordering pizza for dinner last night.

Sadly I never got a chance to provide alternative explanations for the student’s claim, as the teacher decided to interject with the story of her “astral projection” experience. She explained how in the middle of the night she awoke only to find that she couldn’t move a muscle. She couldn’t call out for help and felt completely paralyzed. Her “soul” (or whatever it is she called it) came out of her body and floated around the room and out the front door which is when she woke up. I explained that what she experienced was most likely an episode of sleep paralysis. This was a text-book case of SP in my opinion, and I have had a few episodes myself where I have had similar experiences. I explained to her what sleep paralysis was, both the physiology and psychology of what takes place during an episode. In fact, there was a student in class that worked for a sleep-study center that could back up my claim. Nevertheless, the teacher quickly dismissed my explanation and said that it “explained nothing”. She refuted by saying that science gets things wrong all the time and that “some guy in a white lab coat” could not disprove that what she experienced was not astral projection. Her claim was that it may be the current explanation in science but that this could change and eventually scientists would discover that these episodes were actually astral projection all along. I actually refused to counter her argument after 2 hours of going in circles and simply said “Okay”.

Now I really don’t care what she, or anyone else, believes. Everyone is free to choose whatever explanation makes the most sense to them, even if I do think it’s silly to ignore mountains of evidence. Nevertheless, this is a critical thinking class. What should have been a valid discussion of weighing evidence to support a belief was nothing more than the professor feeling that her beliefs were being threatened. Time and time again I reassured her that my intentions were never to disprove anything, only to provide alternative explanations. Throughout the course of the discussion science was ridiculed and only evidence supporting her belief was considered. Not once were any of my explanations validated or considered seriously. The entire experience left me feeling humiliated and aware of the fact that I really AM a minority with my anti-spiritual worldview. “Critical Thinking” has turned into “Magical Thinking”, and class time is now about sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories. Am I wrong for feeling just a tad pissed off about that? I actually thought this may have been the one class where skeptical thinking would be appreciated. Clearly I was wrong.

As I mentioned earlier, academics can do nothing about this situation. I can withdraw but having a “W” on my transcript is not something I want. I’m really left with no choice but to tough it out. I haven’t really been able to get any useful advice from anyone, and so that’s why I’m writing to you. I have five more weeks left of the term and although I don’t want to talk about ghosts anymore, I may find myself in a situation again where I am the target of debate. Is there any advice you can give me under these circumstances? My biggest fear is the impressionable minds in this class that are being poisoned with affirmation by the professor that her worldview makes more sense. After all, she is promoting it heavily. I know that confirmation bias and attitude polarization plays a huge part in all of this, but I’m not sure how I can present evidence without the receiver feeling threatened. And personally, I wish that she wouldn’t call on me to explain myself if she really doesn’t want to know my answers.

Thank you for any help you could provide,


I did offer Maya some advice. And offered to share the story here. She said she will be following comments, so please feel free to post to her here. I can’t promise she’ll respond, but she will be able to see your notes.

Talk about last minute…

…But the Texas Freedom Network has sent the information for registering to speak at the next Texas SBOE hearings on social studies curriculum standards. So if you are in Austin and wish to speak — and the fundies who simply love the new “it’s all about white Christians!” standards will almost certainly be trying to fill the rolls — you gotta get up pretty early in the morning.

1. You have to register to testify with the Texas Education Agency. TEA will accept registration on Friday, May 14, 2010 from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Registration is on a first-come, first-serve basis, so it is beneficial to register as early as possible on Friday. You can either register by phone by calling 512-463-9007, download a form by clicking here and fax it to 512-936-4319 or hand deliver the form to the William B. Travis State Office Building. The building address is 1701 N. Congress Ave. Austin, TX. (Click here for a google map).

2. Click here to download the form you will need to register with the TEA. Here is some information to help you fill out your form. The hearing date is May 19. Item to be addressed is Social Studies TEKS, and the grade level you will be testifying about: elementary, middle school, or high school. You will need to bring 35 hard copies of your testimony with you to give to the board members. If you represent an organization or business, please indicate that in the section marked “affiliation”; otherwise indicate “parent” or “self”. Do not mark your affiliation as TFN. TFN will have only one official spokesperson that day.

3. The hearing will take place at the William B. Travis State Office Building, 1701 N. Congress Ave., Austin. The hearing will be on Wednesday, May 19, 2010 at 9:00 a.m. (Click here for a google map). The hearing room is 1-104.

4. Parking is limited. There is street parking around the William B. Travis State Office Building that is metered, and we recommend parking at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum garage. (Click here for information on the parking garage).

5. We suggest you also look over the general rules for public testimony and the registration process created by the Texas Education Agency by clicking here.

6. You only have 3 minutes to give your testimony, so it is important to state your main points clearly and quickly.

7. Please click here to read the proposed social studies standards.

The narrow window is to keep the rolls thin so everyone won’t be there till one in the morning, and I’m sure the McLeroy/Leo bloc hopes they can pack it with the church crowd. If you wish to speak, well, I hope this post gets to you in time.

McLeroy’s moronity gets press across the pond

Just in time for the end of his SBOE career, Texas’ moron du jour Don McLeroy is profiled in this piece in the Times. Unlike the mealy-mouthed faux journalism of the US, where everyone is expected to play nice and all views no matter how foolish are to be accorded “respect,” McLeroy here is unambiguously painted as a pants-on-head ignorant ideologue openly attempting to politicize education. Just another reason to be grateful he’s been shown the door.

“I love science,” he protests. Of course you do, Mac. Like priests love kids.

Just says it all, don’t it…

(…sigh) Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.

It should be noted that this level of illiterate paste-eating chowderheadedness is not always indicated in home schooling situations. In fact, you’ll hear from a number of progressive, atheist parents on the TFN blog who have chosen, wisely, to homeschool because Texas is doing is damnedest to turn public schools here into little Christian houses of indoctrination. If I were a parent, I’d homeschool, absolutely. How else could I be sure my kid was getting a sound grounding in history and science, free from right-wing ideological revisionism? But it’s true that a significant amount of homeschooling is done by fundamentalist Christian parents seeking to destroy their kids’ minds and future opportunities by entrenching that very ideology. And I think that’s what we’re seeing the hilarious after-effects of here.

HT: TFN Insider

Darwin Day 2010

Aaaand I hope you’re having a nice one.

Apropos of Don’s post below, I can only reiterate the threat to science education (as well as to civics/history education, and anything else the wingnuts don’t feel meshes with their ideological “white Christians did everything!” talking points) by the current SBOE. So in that spirit I direct your attention to Teach Them Science, a website dedicated to fighting the wingnut agenda.

This isn’t a perfect meeting of the minds. For one thing, it’s a joint project between Center for Inquiry and The Clergy Letter Project. The latter is a group of religious leaders promoting positive science education and resisting creationist ignorance. Now, that’s a good thing. But I can sympathize with PZ’s wariness of the group and the way they try to pretend science and religion can somehow be simpatico. Still, I can see that perhaps such a stance is a PR necessity at present. With the vast majority of the public still clinging to religion’s skirts, good science education would be a hard sell if it came with the message that “Now you can dump all that stupid God bullshit!” There’s a whole page on the Teach Them Science site that addresses the question of whether you can accept evolution and still believe in Sky Daddy, and I admit it kind of makes me cringe. But I have to remember that’s because I’ve evolved beyond superstition, and most people aren’t so lucky. So, you know, baby steps. Sure, a person can be scientifically literate and theistic all at once, though I still don’t understand why they’d want to (lookin’ at you, Ken Miller). But the point of proper scientific education first and foremost is to fill people’s heads with facts — something the currently SBOE is fighting tooth and nail — and let them draw conclusions about worthwhile philosophies on their own after they have all the facts. It’s the SBOE that wants to deny students that freedom of choice, and impose upon them not merely a Christian philosophy, but a specifically conservative American fundamentalist Protestant one.

So, mindful of the fact that sometimes war makes for strange bedfellows, I think movements like Teach Them Science stand to do more good than harm, and that the anti-science agenda of the far right needs to be fought by any means necessary.

NY Times Magazine covers the Texas SBOE

The New York Times Magazine published a very good piece this weekend on the Texas State Board of Education, it’s Christian exceptionalist members and their motivations. The piece is called “How Christian were the Founders?“. It’s long, but thourough and fair. I recommend it.

One of the last points Russell Shorto makes at the end of the article is that a few of the SBOE members are vulnerable or not seeking reelection (Cynthia Dunbar). We Texans have a chance to correct some of these problems in the upcoming March primaries and in the general election in November. If you live in Texas, we urge you to pick candidates who will truly improve education in Texas.

A day without abusing the Texas SBOE is like a day without sunshine

What never ceases to amaze me about the Texas State Board of Education is the dazzling arrogance with which they blindly soldier on in the face of almost total loathing from everyone in the state who isn’t a rabid fundagelical teabagger. This is a pretty conservative state, gang, but when you get an editorial like this from the newspaper in Denton — just a short drive north from the DFW Metroplex, so it’s not exactly the tree-hugging lefty Sodom that is Austin — you know you’ve gone so far over the top in your demagoguery that you’ve literally lapped yourself and gotten jammed up your own ass. The lead to this piece is pure win, and the rest ain’t bad at all. All you have to do to show how dire things are at the SBOE is simply to describe what they do.

Being ignorant is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is nothing to be particularly proud of either. A large and disruptive segment of the Texas State Board of Education is not only ignorant — a state that we all share at various times and on various subjects — it is proudly and aggressively ignorant, which goes beyond simple ignorance and ventures into the territory of malignant stupidity.

Gold. Of course, the defining characteristic of the extremist ideologue is to take the fact that everybody hates you as validation of your perfect and utter rightness in all things. After all, as Dan McLeroy has so bravely said, somebody’s gotta stand up to alla dem expertses!

At the Texas SBOE, the fail flows like a river

If you’ve been following the Texas Freedom Network’s blog, odds are your heart rate has been boosted to lethal levels over the insanity of the Texas State Board of (Mis)Education’s attempts to rewrite American history so that social studies textbooks reflect right-wing Christianist agitprop. (McCarthy was a hero, Phyllis Schlafly is as important as the Founding Fathers, and the Civil Rights Movement was really overrated.) This is dangerous stupidity. And the degree to which these assclowns are so wedded to wingnut ideology that they cannot do basic fact checking is illustrated by the revelations in this article. Just go read it for yourself. It’s a jaw-dropping level of idiocy. Clearly, there is no bottom for Terri Leo and her ship of fools to scrape.

Propagandists to the Rescue!

The Texas State Board of Education has been a constant source of annoyance and frustration for people like me, who value church-state separation. The current board is packed with creationists and religious ideologues who have lost touch with reality, not to mention their mission as educators. Here’s a sampling: Board member Cynthia Dunbar has called public education a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion” and unconstitutional. Not surprisingly, she’s a graduate of Pat Robertson’s would-be law school. Another board member, Don McLeroy, has consistently promoted Christianity in his previous role as chair of the board. He is quite convinced his training as a dentist makes him better suited to judge scientific material than the true experts whom he holds in contempt. He has called evolution “hooey” (as it conflicts with his Christian belief). Board member Terri Leo has argued for all language in textbooks to refer to opposite-sex couples exclusively (with no neutral language) when referring to marriage. She advocated that middle school textbooks emphasize that gay teens commit suicides at a higher rate. (It couldn’t have anything to do with Christian persecution, propaganda, and suggestion, could it, Terri?) If this is our best and brightest on the SBOE, Texas is pretty screwed up on the education front. Unfortunately, Texas’ textbook decision impact broad swaths of the United States. Many states simply buy the textbooks that have gone through the Texas review process.

The latest episode in this freak show is the current review of the history textbooks. Various dubiously qualified “experts” have been brought in to spin the textbooks with ideological agendas. Of particular interest is pseudo-historian David Barton and minister Peter Marshall who were both called by board members to lend a hand in reviewing history textbooks. Neither have credentials to be called experts. Barton is a well-known propagandist. He makes his living promoting a pro-Christian version of American history with lies and half-truths. Not surprisingly, he’s up to his usual tricks. The minister’s agenda is far more obvious. The only bright light in this whole sordid mess is the fact that Texas Freedom Network is doing a great job of covering the mess and helping to keep us informed. With luck, we can get more sane people on the board in the upcoming election. For now, we can really only watch the train wreck and hope for the best. (Yes, there’s a public hearing this week, but I don’t think it will have an impact.)

While I have certainly felt a lot of frustration and anger at the Texas SBOE over the years, today I’m feeling kind of sorry for Christianity. I feel pity. If the facts about Christianity were actually taught in schools… the Crusades, Salem Witch Trials, systematic persecution of Jews, the burning of the Library of Alexandria, the Spanish Inquisition, the corruption of the Popes, the sabotage of medical advances, the marketing of rapture snuff porn, and the link between belief and so many social ills… if all of the facts were taught in schools, in an unbiased way, it would inoculate kids in the US against the disease of Christianity. That’s what they’ve done it in Europe and the level of belief has plummeted.

Christian leaders here know of this danger, so they’ve packed the board with ideologues and sent in their crack team of propagandists to make Texas children’s minds safe for a false religion. They know they have to lie to the children because the truth is not on their side. It’s a pitiful attempt to save the falsehoods they hold so dear. Even in its sickly state, however, Christianity is still doing great harm.

Ill-educated fools in charge of education

Yes, it’s another Don McLeroy post. This Washington Monthly piece is currently making the rounds. If you haven’t seen it, you aren’t aware of just how bad things are in Texas.

Seriously, this will make you ill. Is there no depth to the ideological delusions cretins like this want to enshrine in our schools? Don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical.

In honor of McLeroy, and inspired by one of PZ’s headlines today, I thought I’d create a little article of anticreowear, for all your scientifically sartorial needs. I plan to wear mine proudly. Those of you obsessed with the whole “civility” thing will clutch your pearls and admonish me sternly about it, I’m sure. Go ahead and take your concern as noted in advance. Read the attached article — shit, just read the first two paragraphs — and you’ll understand, I hope, why I’m beyond any pretense of civility with the likes of McLeroy.