The best is lost

A reader responded to my article where I said I found no solace in lies by sending me a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay. This could be part of the godless liturgy for coping with funerals; it’s so true to the spirit of our thinking, and so antagonistic to Christian attitudes. So I’ll share it with you, too.

Dirge without music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and laurel they go: but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains – but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love –
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind:
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Beautiful words somehow bring a little comfort to us, I agree, but better still are beautiful words that also ring true.

Brace yourselves, LA

Every time I do this I get email from people who say they were startled to hear my voice on the radio, so I figure this time I’ll warn you so I don’t cause any traffic accidents. I’ll be on Michael Slate’s radio show on KPFK in Los Angeles this morning, and we’re trying to do this on a monthly schedule. So if you’re driving along (you’re in LA, so you probably spend most of your time driving, right?) and you hear me announce over your radio that gods are hokum, it really isn’t a divine communication.

Bad science education in the US

I am completely unsurprised by the recent report on the state of evolution in the American science classroom. It confirms entirely my impressions from years of freshman college students and from previous studies of the subject, and puts specific numbers and issues to the problem.

The short summary: public schools suck at teaching basic biology. You already knew this, too, though, didn’t you? The question has always been, “How bad?”

We can now say how many high school biology teachers do a good job, teaching the recommendations of the National Research Council and also, by the way, obeying the requirements of most state science standards: 28%. About a quarter of our biology teachers are actually discussing the evidence that evolution occurred and using evolution as a theme to integrate the components of a good year of biology instruction. And since most school curricula only include one year of life science, that effectively means that only about a quarter of our high school graduates are even exposed to evolutionary biology.

There’s also another problem. 13% of our biology teachers are openly and unashamedly creationists who teach creationism in the classroom. That number varies, by the way, with the political leanings of the citizens of the school district: 40% of the teachers in conservative school districts reject evolution entirely, while “only” 11% in liberal areas do. This is a disaster. This is active, ongoing miseducation and misrepresentation of science by the teachers we entrust with our children.

What about the rest? 60% of our teachers do nothing: they teach the bare minimum of evolution that they can get away with, focusing on details of genetics and molecular biology that allow them to avoid the more obvious implications (which shouldn’t happen, either; the molecular evidence for evolution is powerful stuff), or they allow it to slip off the schedule of lesson plans. They’re afraid, and rightly so, of aggressive, nasty, privileged religious parents who will make their life hellish if they do their job properly.

The paper did surprise me in one way. It made a very strong statement about those timid teachers in the 60%:

The cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists. The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or “teaching the controversy” all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established by the combination of peer review and replication. These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally.

Are you a teacher who avoids the subject of evolution because of the crapstorm of chaos that follows from the public if you do? Consider yourselves rebuked. You really aren’t helping.

What are we going to do about this? The authors have two major suggestions, and here’s where I get to feel rebuked. One problem is that many of the timid teachers also do not feel adequately trained to address evolution well, and that’s a significant factor in their reluctance to press the topic (creationist teachers, on the other hand, are full of unwarranted certainty and lie to their students with confidence). So they recommend that there be more thorough training in evolution for pre-service teachers, with at least a requirement for one course in evolution. I think I can say that my university does a good job at that, at least: our secondary education majors get a rigorous exposure to evolutionary biology in our program. If you’re looking to hire new science teachers, look to UMM graduates!

Another suggestion, though, is that scientists and science organizations ought to be doing more outreach and assistance. That’s tough, since our time is tight, but we know that would be a good goal. When a group of us put together the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education, for instance, one of the goals was to provide speakers and yearly seminar courses to help teachers learn more about evolution, and we did a good job the first year. But that effort was made at a time when there was active pressure from creationist groups to influence the state science standards, and as that pressure eased off, so did we, and we’ve been slacking ever since. The framework is there so we could fire it up again quickly, but maybe we ought also to be maintaining good science education in these lulls between storms, too.

There’s an interesting interview with the authors on Ars Technica — check it out.

Berkman MB, Plutzer E (2011) Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom. Science 331:404-405.

Tempest in τ, ζ, σ, φ, λ, ε, δ, η and γ2 Sagittarii

Dara O’Briain and Brian Cox aggravated a great many astrologers when they announced on a UK television program that “astrology is rubbish” and “astrology is nonsense”. The Astrological Association of Great Britain was so incensed that they created a petition demanding that the BBC commit to “making a fair and balanced representation of astrology in the future” — which left me amusedly discombobulated that there is a formal Astrological Association of Great Britain, and that they don’t realize that tossing their whole goofy discipline in the rubbish heap is a fair and balanced representation.

Now we get a whole new level of foolishness, though: Martin Robbins has posted a criticism of the skeptics from a serious historian who doesn’t get it. She demands that we take astrology more seriously and respectfully, and explains that many astrologers are intelligent people who study astronomy (you know, the real science), and are fully aware of concepts like precession and the actual physical arrangements of the stars in the sky, and have quite sophisticated explanations to account for superficial discrepancies like the absence of Ophiuchus from the official list of zodiacal constellations, and that they are right to be annoyed when they are portrayed as unaware of obvious physical phenomena.

This is all true, but stupid.

I’ve had long conversations with Very Serious Astrologers; early in my skeptical career, I spent a fair amount of time engaging them, and I’m familiar with the diverse ways in which their brains work. They were generally engrossed with the behavior of those lights in the sky; if you wanted to know what constellation you could spot on the horizon in the western sky in August, you could ask an astronomer and get a good answer, or you could ask a dedicated astrologer and they’d tell you the same thing, and they were certainly far more reliable sources for that sort of information than I am. I’ve played with some of their software, and it is intricate and elaborate and uses genuine astronomical data that they gather from astronomical databases.

But so what? It’s still all rubbish. There’s more to science than mastering mechanics, there’s this little thing called “understanding” that is absolutely essential. A great piano tuner is not necessarily a good musician, and memorizing the periodic table of the elements does not turn you into a chemist. Imagine a conversation with your mother: “I’m sure your father can fix the electronic ignition system in your Honda, dear…why, he managed to drive from Owatonna to the Mall of America last week, and he only got lost once!” One thing does not have anything to do with the other. Knowing a bunch of solid facts about stars does not justify explanations about magical influences that are antagonistic to known processes and which are built, not on the trustworthy foundation of that data, but on unfounded beliefs in magical influences from distant objects.

This is especially true when that specialized scientific knowledge is used as part of the pseudo-scientific patter marshalled to justify their supernatural explanations. Science is window dressing to modern astrologers; they don’t get to fulminate indignantly by pointing at the astronomy element they’ve incorporated into their delusions when someone points out that their conclusions are all wrong and completely unwarranted. Those don’t matter. Their rationalizations are like ‘sophisticated theology’ — vapor and noise that they make flashier by throwing in a few modern scientific terms.

Rebekah Higgitt wants to claim that astrologers are justified “if they are presented as idiots who don’t understand precession and do nothing but write newspaper horoscopes that cover around a twelfth of the population in one go.” OK. Then we should present them as idiots who don’t have a mechanism for their claimed influences, ignore all the logical arguments and empirical evidence that shows astrology doesn’t work, and abuse astronomy to put up a phony façade of scienciness.

They’re still idiots.

Episode CLXIIb: The LOVE thread

The everlasting community thread is getting fractious and ugly: the prolonged association is beginning to chafe, I think. So as an experiment I’m temporarily splitting the thread.

This is the LOVE subthread. Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes. No mellow-harshing talk allowed here; if you must, take it to the HATE thread.

(Current totals: 11,768 entries with 1,258,505 comments.)

Episode CLXIIa: The HATE thread

The everlasting community thread is getting fractious and ugly: the prolonged association is beginning to chafe, I think. So as an experiment I’m temporarily splitting the thread.

This is the HATE subthread. If there’s something you want to get off your chest, if there’s someone who has annoyed you, if you just want to make an angry howl of annoyance, this is the place to vent. No nicey-nice talk, either, just be brutal to one another within these confines. Can’t handle it? Go to the LOVE thread.

(Current totals: 11,767 entries with 1,258,505 comments.)

Speaking of “WTF” moments, heeeeeere’s Sarah!

What a stupid, ignorant woman. She’s baffled by the phrase “Sputnik moment”; she reads it over and over; it makes her vaguely uncomfortable, with that Russian sound to it; and rather than asking someone or looking it up, she decides to invent her own totally wrong definition built on false premises (the Soviet Union was bankrupted by a satellite launch in 1957? Ha ha, screw you, Ronald Reagan!), and declare it on national television? It must be bad, that commie Obama said it.

Man, if I thought the American electorate cared at all about intelligence in its presidential candidates, I’d announce that Palin is toast and we can just scrape the burnt crumbly bits into the sink, try to salvage her with some butter, take a bite, decide she’s ruined, and throw her in the kitchen recycling bin for deposit in the compost heap once the snow melts.

Yeah, that metaphor ran away with me, but then I just watched the video, so I have an excuse for a little temporary brain damage.

Tom Ritter has figured out the path to scientific credibility

Tom Ritter has a dream. It’s a grand dream.

Tom Ritter dreams of a day when people recognize that he’s more than just a cranky high school teacher, and they realize that all the scientists in the world have been completely wrong, while Truth lives in the sweaty cranium of a harumphing gomer in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

He dreams of a day when everyone sees that he fills an important niche.

He dreams of a day when people realize that evolution is an unscientific theory, while Jesus is our Principal Investigator.

Ritter dreams of a day when the kids get off of his lawn.

He dreams of a day when modern medicine finally figures out how to remove that stick from his butt. You know, the one with the pointy end pressing against his brain.

He’s had these dreams for a long time now, but at last he’s got a shot at glory, one chance to maybe have one of his dreams come true.

Tom Ritter is suing Pennsylvania public schools for teaching evolution. Surely this won’t make him look like a deranged looney from the sticks, unprofessionally bellowing his rage at a world he never made and never understood? This is his opportunity! Fate can’t be so cruel as to continue to foster his reputation as the crazy, creepy chemistry teacher, the Milton Wadams of the Blue Mountain School District who sees evolution as his red Swingline stapler, his object of desire? No, of course not. Because his logic is sound, as strong as anything any creationist has ever come up with.

Here is his professional, scientific argument. I’ve taken the liberty of footnoting it so that you can see how deep it is.

Evolution is Unscientific1

“The theory of evolution by cumulative natural selection is the only theory we know of that is in principle capable of explaining the existence of organized complexity.” — Richard Dawkins, famous Atheist2

Biology studies organisms. It can also explain how organisms got that way, but studying organisms does not require explaining how they got that way3, and the theory of evolution is bad science.4

Evolutionists cannot demonstrate that three critical points are even possible, let alone that they actually happened:

(1) No one has demonstrated that life can be created from non-life.5 (Reports of artificial DNA do not alter this fact. Life is still required.)6

(2) No one has demonstrated that a new “sexual species” can be created.7 (Since the definition of species is contested, for these purposes it is defined as an organism that can breed with its own kind and produce fertile offspring, but cannot breed with its ancestors.8)

(3) Evolutionists theorize the human brain evolved from lower forms.9 Over 50 years into the age of computers, machines can crunch numbers far better and faster than humans, recognize and use language and tools, and beat us in chess. Yet science has yet to build even a rudimentary computer that can contemplate its own existence, the hallmark of the human brain.10 (Contemplating your existence is best understood as imagining what will remain after your death.) And no animal, no matter how “intelligent,” can do this either.11

Ask anyone who espouses evolution if these three points are not true.12

If evolution is unscientific, why teach it?13 Because no Creator means no God.14 In other words, evolution taught without a possible alternative is Atheism.15

Now Atheism rests on an article of faith (A strong belief that cannot be proven but is nonetheless believed).16

Therefore Atheism is a religion.17

And it is illegal to teach religion in the public schools.18

(I am not defending creationism or intelligent design. But evolution has not proven its case, and until it does, saying it is the only explanation for present life is Atheism.)19

1Because Tom Ritter says so, and only about a million scientists know he’s wrong.

2And famous evolutionary biologist, but for purposes of Tom’s argument, that’s hardly relevant, where “relevant” is defined as “conflicts with my claim”.

3True Science™requires closing your eyes to questions that might produce answers contradicting True Faith™.

4See title.

5Except that we are pretty sure the world lacked life before it had life, therefore life had to come from non-life at some point. Or perhaps Mr Ritter is also arguing with the Old Testament?

6Similarly, any technology that allows life to be created doesn’t count. Therefore this statement is irrefutable! Huzzah!

7See previous unbreakable escape clause.

8Because that would be really icky. If they aren’t dead, they’re really old.

9For instance, I theorize that a small garden slug crawled into Tom Ritter’s ear one day, worked its way into his cranium, and is now rasping away at his motor nerves to evoke strange twitchy responses.

1050 years of computing certainly ought to be able to outperform 4 billion years of evolution.

11Well, obsessing over the imagined fate of a magic wisp of personhood that survives blunt force trauma (or cranial slug invasion) might be the hallmark of the Christian brain, but the rest of us…not so much.

12OK. They aren’t true.

13Aside from its explanatory power, the volumes of evidence in its support, its ability to guide further research, its practice by the overwhelming majority of biologists on the planet, and the necessity to understand the principles of evolutionary biology to understand taxonomy, physiology, development, cell biology, molecular biology, biochemistry, etc., etc., etc.? Well, no, aside from those, there really is no reason to teach it.

14Unless you’re one of those wacky theistic evolutionists who think evolution is the mechanism god used to create life…but they’re all like Mormons or Scientologists, non-Christians, and therefore atheists.

15This is a sweeping principle that will be expanded to cover other disciplines as well. Teaching auto repair without mentioning a magic car factory in the sky is atheism; teaching agriculture without discussing the angels who tug the shoots out of the ground is atheism.

16Which is also true for every single science, which makes them, by this definition, religions.

17Just like chemistry, physics, agriculture, and auto repair.

18More simply, it is therefore illegal to teach, period, in the public schools. QED. Brains explode. Society melts down. Zombies stalk the streets while rains of frogs and blood predict the End Times. Mission accomplished.

19Wait a minute there…Christianity hasn’t proven its case, either. Therefore Christianity is atheism?

Yes, indeed, we’re all going to take Tom Ritter seriously from now on! Because filing a federal lawsuit is something only a True Genius™ could possibly do. Next step: Nobel Prize.

The Secular Coalition for America wants you!

Here’s a great opportunity for a paid summer internship with the SCA. Apply!

SCA Summer 2011 Internship Program

The Secular Coalition for America (SCA) is pleased to offer one paid internship position for summer 2011. SCA is seeking a highly motivated undergraduate junior- or senior-level student with a demonstrated interest in being active in the nontheistic movement. The student must live and attend school more than 50 miles outside of the District of Columbia.

SCA is a 501(c)4 advocacy organization whose purpose is to amplify the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States. Located in Washington, D.C., our staff lobbies U.S. Congress about issues of special concern to our constituency and advocates for the separation of church and state. To learn more about SCA, visit

The internship will provide activities and opportunities to learn about, assist with, and work with the four main areas of SCA’s office: lobbying and advocacy, grassroots and outreach, development and fundraising, and media relations and social media networking.

SCA will provide housing through the Washington Intern Student Housing (WISH) ( The intern will be required to share a townhome or apartment with up to three people of the same gender. The group living situation will allow the intern to meet other interns working in D.C. as well as provide social opportunities. WISH provides all housing necessities except a computer, personal items, cell phone, bedding, towels, and clothing.

The internship will be a 12-week program and will run from Monday, May 30, 2011, through Friday, August 13, 2011; work hours will generally be Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Occasional weekend and evening hours may be expected. The internship will pay $500/week = $6,000 for the summer (minus required district and federal taxes). Transportation costs to and from Washington, D.C. will not be provided.

To apply for the SCA Summer 2011 Internship Program, please fill out the following application and send the following documents to

Complete applications must be emailed by Feb. 18, 2011. A selection will be made by March4; only the selected candidate will be notified.

If you have questions, email them to Do NOT send applications by regular mail. No phone calls please. Incomplete applications will not be considered.

Here is the application form in rtf and pdf formats.