How convenient

Gary Bradley, a professor at the Seventh Day Adventist college La Sierra University, has been under fire because he teaches evolutionary biology competently — he doesn’t accept the young earth creationism that SDA dogma demands. The battle is over, though, and he and several others have been asked to resign for great crimes.

According to the Spectrum article, Darnell met up afterward with Beach, Bradley, and Kaatz at a private home, where they watched a National Basketball Association playoff game and discussed the meeting. The recorder kept running, unbeknownst to the four men. It captured “foul language, references to alcohol consumption and unflattering comments being made about board members, administrators, and church leaders,” according to the article. Darnell then sent the recording to a number of key members of the Adventist community, including The Spectrum, reportedly without knowing that it contained more than just the audio of the meeting. Eventually, the recording made its way to Ricardo Graham, chair of the board of trustees.

I think they’re all better off getting out of that crazy place. The absurdity of being pressured to teach lies in the classroom ought to have been reason enough to leave, but that they have employers who want to control what they do after hours in their own homes ought to convince anyone that it’s time to leave.

Synthese scandal makes the New York Times

You may recall the furious debate among philosophers about a philosophy journal, Synthese, that made a tacit rebuke of critics of Intelligent Design creationism in an editorial added after acceptance of a number of papers on ID; it’s not just that they caved to creationist pressure, but that the editors-in-chief went over the heads of the working editors who assembled that issue of the journal to criticize excellent work by rational philosophers like Barbara Forrest. There has been a boycott of the journal; links to various commentaries on the issue can be found on a status page.

Well now the furor has hit the big time, with a summary article in the New York Times.

It’s clear from that article what the problem is: Francis Beckwith, weasely creationist apologist, got his butt hurt by a discussion of his role as a public enabler of bad science. I have long rolled my eyes at every mention of Beckwith — he’s a disingenuous creationist who struggles mightily to pretend that he’s a serious scholar arriving at serious conclusions, despite the fact that his conclusions always agree with those of professional liars and academic frauds. Did Barbara Forrest call him out on his history of baloney? Yes, she did. Is this a problem in an academic journal? I should hope not.

What’s your online reputation?

When I fly off to give talks, I’ve got three basic categories that I choose from: there’s the “science is godless, and here’s why” talk for atheist audiences, there’s the “development and evolution go together like peanut butter and chocolate” talk for atheists or scientists, and finally, there’s the “you better pay attention to the online world, and here’s why” talk for scientists, who often don’t have a clue about blogs and twitter and facebook. Now Nature gets in on the latter act, with a feature on managing your online reputation. It turns out that most scientists, especially younger scientists, are already fully aware of how important it is to have an identity on the web.

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I was interviewed for the article and podcast, but one thing I didn’t really pick up on was one focus of the article, on professional companies that manage online reputations. They give the example of a cancer researcher who has been purportedly lying about his background, is currently under investigation for research misconduct, and who commissioned a company to patch up his reputation (or more likely, bury the ugly rumors under a mountain of inanities).

Online Reputation Manager, headquartered near Rochester, New York, is a company that uses search-engine optimization strategies to repair the online image of clients who have been besieged with unfavourable press. These include flooding the Internet with positive messages to drown out the negative. A company representative confirmed ownership of the e-mail address, but could not say whether Potti is a client.

Ugh. This doesn’t work. Anyone searching for information on Dr Anil Potti who discovers blithering press releases like “Dr. Anil Potti Likes Spending Quality Time With His Wife And Three Daughters” is going to sniff out the scent of a stinker. Not to mention that Dr Anil Potti, his misconduct investigation, and his pathetic attempts to cover it up, have now achieved prominent mention in both Nature and Pharyngula.

You want a good online reputation as a scientist? First rule: be honest and forthright.

Biologists, looking for work?

Bluefield College is looking for someone to teach general biology. They have a few requirements before hiring you, though. It always amazes me how they can get away with this.

The individual must be a committed Christian and have ability to integrate faith and learning, ability to foster critical and creative thinking, ability to work cooperatively within the campus community to advance the mission of the college and demonstrated excellence in undergraduate teaching.

Bluefield College is a private, four-year liberal arts college located in the scenic Virginia highlands. The college is Christ-centered in its mission, global in its outlook, and is in covenant with the Baptist General Association of Virginia. The institution does not discriminate on the basis of national or ethnic origin, gender, or race.

Imagine if we godless folk could set equivalent requirements — it would freak the fanatics out.

The individual must be a committed atheist and have ability to integrate reason and learning, ability to foster critical and creative thinking, ability to work cooperatively within the campus community to advance the mission of the college and demonstrated excellence in undergraduate teaching.

My Imaginary Secular University is a private, four-year liberal arts college located in the scenic Arctic wastelands, in an underground bunker beneath a skull-shaped mountain. The college is science-centered in its mission, global in its outlook, and is in covenant with the National Academy of Sciences. The institution does not discriminate on the basis of national or ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, or race.

Hey, wait, I’d sign up for that in a heartbeat! Why don’t we have any godless universities anywhere? (And don’t try to tell me they all are — even my secular state university goes tippy-toes around religion.)

Florida State University sells its integrity for $1.5 million

That’s a bargain price for throwing a reputation down the drain. FSU has turned over some hiring decisions to a billionaire ideologue.

A conservative billionaire who opposes government meddling in business has bought a rare commodity: the right to interfere in faculty hiring at a publicly funded university.

A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University’s economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting “political economy and free enterprise.”

Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they’ve funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.

Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it’s not happy with the faculty’s choice or if the hires don’t meet “objectives” set by Koch during annual evaluations.

This deal has been in place for a couple of years, and Koch has already meddled in at least one hiring decision, rejecting 60% of the candidates that the faculty favored. If I were a faculty member who found my choice of colleagues dictated by Koch (or Soros, or Gates, or any similar filthy rich dilettante), I’d be a bit peevish, and I don’t think the golden candidate would get much respect from his peers. On the other hand, if I were applying for a job and was rejected because I didn’t fit the ideology of the Koch brothers, I’d feel darned good and also be well satisfied that I wasn’t going to be affiliated with such a cheap brothel university.

On the third hand, if I were a graduate of the econ department of FSU, I’d be extremely embarrassed about my degree at this point.

David Rasmussen, the dean of the college of social sciences, is trying to defend the deal by saying they needed the money, an argument with which I can sympathize, since every university is struggling right now. But selling your principles of academic freedom undercuts your ability to support independent thought, and means you aren’t really a university anymore. You’re a corporate propaganda arm. Other universities, more respectable universities, have a clear understanding of that idea.

Most universities, including the University of Florida, have policies that strictly limit donors’ influence over the use of their gifts. Yale University once returned $20 million when the donor demanded veto power over appointments, saying such control was “unheard of.”

Say, Michael Ruse is at Florida State — will he condemn this policy, or will he make the same weasely excuses for it that he does for creationism?

What your teachers are doing

Almost all of your public school teachers have sex. Most of them enjoy it and do it repeatedly, even.

Many of your public school teachers vote for the Democratic party. Some are conservative Republicans. Some are Communists.

Some of your public school teachers are atheists. Or Episcopalians. Or Baptists. Or Scientologists.

All of your public school teachers go home at the end of the school day and have private lives, where they do things that really aren’t at all relevant to your 8 year old daughter, your 15 year old son. That you pay taxes to cover their salaries for doing their jobs during work hours does not entitle you to control the entirety of their lives.

All of your public school teachers have a history. Almost all of them have masturbated. Many of them have smoked marijuana. Almost all of them have dated; most of them have danced. Some of them are gay. Some of them are heterosexual. Almost all of them have private kinks which you don’t know about, because they don’t practice them in public, let alone when they’re doing their jobs. Some of them have been sex workers.

And you know what? All of them can be fired or blacklisted by local prudes on school boards or the school administration. Teachers: you don’t get to be human. This outrages me.

When I was in eighth grade, one of the best teachers I ever had taught me geometry. Mr Anderson was fat; he sweated excessively. He always wore baggy slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt, and he had a crew cut. And he was ferocious. He would yell at bad students and tell them to work harder, and if he caught you being inattentive in class he’d throw an eraser at you. Those students mocked him mercilessly, behind his back. He was also passionate about the subject — I can still see him in my mind’s eye excitedly making that chalk fly across the board, talking excitedly about a proof, giggling at how cool a result was.

Every year he rewarded the best of his students with an invitation to his house for a formal party, with snacks and Nehi soda. He was single and weird, but there was no worry about impropriety — there’d be a score of us there, who would all be treated politely as adults, which was mind-blowing right there. He’d play music for us: opera and show tunes.

Show tunes. He adored Ethel Merman, and sometimes even in class he’d start humming something from his beloved musicals.

He made the adults uncomfortable, and you can guess what kinds of rumors the school jocks spread about him. The people who didn’t care that he was a fantastic, enthusiastic math teacher who taught students self-respect and to love math only saw a strange man who didn’t fit in, who was odd, who fit certain stereotypes, and who obviously could not be trusted.

So one year, poof, he was gone. Dismissed. The best damned math teacher they had, sent away on the heels of a sordid campaign of bigoted whispers.

Even now, it stirs a little outrage in me, that teachers get judged not by the quality of their work and their positive effects on their students, but how well they fit the conventions of the most closed-minded members of the community, by people, even, who despise good educations that raise kids to think independently.

Melissa Petro, the teacher who was open and unashamed of her past as a sex worker, couldn’t be more different, superficially, than a fat flamboyant math teacher. But they do share something in common: both were pilloried by an intolerant public and cowardly administrators over perfectly ordinary and human traits that just didn’t match an unrealistic expectation of teachers as bloodless mannequins of perfect propriety.

Why education suffers

Eggers and Calegari have an excellent op-ed on the problem of American education: in short, it’s the money, stupid.

When we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

I’ve been getting a bit annoyed lately at the deference paid to the military. I keep seeing special acknowledgments paid to servicemen — on a recent shuttle ride to the airport parking lot, for instance, a fellow shouted out to the driver that he should drop off the guy in uniform first, to thank him for his service to the country…and then the driver had to take an awkward route through the lot, passing by other passenger’s cars, to drop this one fellow off first. It was extremely annoying — and to the credit of the fellow in uniform, he was also clearly uncomfortable with this pointless special treatment — but the guy who shouted out the demand sure looked smug and pleased with himself the whole way.

I do not lack appreciation for our soldiers, but seriously — they are not an elite caste. They are working class people like many of us. Why doesn’t someone shout out for special attention to cooks, or park rangers, or high school teachers? They all do great work for us, and the teachers in particular do an invaluable service at budget rates. But for some antiquated reason, we still think it more important to give Gomer Pyle a gun than to give a teacher the tools to do her job.

Also, you’d be financially deranged to go into teaching.

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

Isn’t this absurd? It’s also not just a matter of averages: teachers in prosperous suburban schools get paid more than teachers in poor inner city schools. Those who need education the most get it the least. There ought to be a greater commitment to public education and more respect given to those who deliver it.

I know what you’re thinking, and so do the authors.

For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.

It’s going to take a great deal of political will to accomplish this sort of change. Right now, the biggest obstacle to a better school system is a creaking, useless mechanism for funding schools that comes right out of the 18th century, and simply doesn’t work: the local tax levy. Schools should all be funded at the state level, at least (preferably at the federal level) and the game of bi-yearly begging for pennies on a property tax should end. Instead, though, our government is full of awful, anti-common-sense ninnies who prattle about vouchers and private schools instead, who want to reduce investment in education.