Teacher Who Burned Crosses into Student’s Arms Gave Extra Credit for Expelled Film

June 20, 2008

The science-blogosphere has been following the story of John Freshwater, a Mount Vernon public school teacher, for some time. The man is clearly off his rocker. He burned a cross into the arms of one his students. In class. And in addition to a host of definitive religious assertions to students during class time, Bibles and other religious materials featured prominently in the classroom, Ed Brayton also notes that:

He kept creationist books and videos in his classroom, including at least one video and one book by Kent Hovind. He also kept the book Refuting Evolution there. Parents showed the investigators handouts from religious groups slamming evolution and claiming that dinosaurs and humans lived together, among other things.

He even used, as a class example of how “science can be wrong” (a perfectly legitimate and even important thing to teach) the idea that science may have found a genetic basis for homosexuality, which of course meant that ‘In that case science is wrong because the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin’ (which is not even close to a legitimate thing to teach in public school).

But from Panda’s Thumb comes word of an even more intriguing tidbit in the recently released report on his conduct:

Mr. Freshwater gave an extra credit assignment for students to view the movie “Expelled” which does involve intelligent design.

Mmmm hmmm…

Interestingly, this is one of the few cases in which I’ve heard about Expelled successfully penetrating into a school classroom, which was supposedly one of its primary goals. And, surprise surprise, it comes from a young earth creationist using a public school classroom as his bully pulpit.

One who feels at liberty to brand his religious beliefs directly into the skin of his students. Teach Burn the controversy!

Update: Freshwater fired. Countdown watch until the DI claims him as another martyr for intellectual freedom…


Rolling Stone Sloppily Slams John McCain’s Love of Evangelical Joel Osteen

June 18, 2008

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone journalist and special reporter on Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” isn’t happy with John McCain. Not at all. And he’s got a long list of complaints, the most valid and snicker-worthy one being that John McCain may be one of the few Presidential candidates in history who now opposes not one, but “two different bills bearing his own name.”

Taibbi, however, is particularly peeved by McCain’s choice of inspiring evangelical authors:

McCain’s transformation is so complete that at a recent town-hall meeting in Nashville, when asked to name an author who inspired him, the candidate — who once described televangelists of the Jerry Falwell genus as “agents of intolerance” — put none other than Joel Osteen at the top of his list. “He’s inspirational,” McCain said.

Standing at the meeting, I didn’t write Osteen’s name down in my notebook — apparently because my brain refused on some level to accept that McCain had actually said it. Of all the vile, fake, lying-ass, money-grubbing shyster scumbags on the face of this planet, there is perhaps none more loathsome than Osteen, a human haircut with plastic baseball-size teeth who has made a fortune selling the appalling only-in-America idea that terrestrial greed is actually a form of Christian devotion. “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us,” Osteen once wrote. This is the revolting, snake-oil-selling dickhead that John McCain actually chose to pimp as number one on his list of inspirational authors. So much for “go, sell everything you have and give to the poor,” and all that other hippie crap from the New Testament.

Taibbi, who’s famous for penning the poorly received “52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope” while “coming out of a Vicodin haze,” has quite a talent for outraged posturing. But no matter how many fulminating expletives he tosses out, I just don’t buy it.

He’s got this thing exactly backwards.

God Chairs About Each and Every One of YouSee, the thing is: Osteen is actually one of the least offensive of televangelists I can think of. The primary complaint most people have about Osteen is that is not that he’s a fire-breathing hatemonger, but rather that he’s milquetoast. He preaches happiness and self-improvement, at times with only the barest hints of scripture or doctrine. Some conservative critics have even hinted (hyperbolically, certainly) that his ministry is “atheistic” in character, or even that it represents the last gasp before Christianity collapses into materialism and embrace of popular culture. When Larry King grilled him on his theological views, “I don’t know” was Osteen’s most common answer. And he took considerable heat for being unwilling to clearly state that Christ was the only way to heaven.

Osteen does toe the general conservative evangelical party line when called on it. But the point is that he rarely goes out of his way to emphasize traditional religious right stalking horses. He’s even famous for his “no politics from the pulpit” principle, which, if you know anything about politics, is nigh unthinkable in some quarters (Democratic politicians who regularly run whirlwind tours of African American churches, I’m looking at you).

Like most evangelicals, Osteen’s views on homosexuality are hardly laudable… but they’re also about as tame as one could possibly expect, given his chosen religion:

“We don’t think it is God’s best and we have personally seen many homosexuals changed through the power of God. But we aren’t going to judge or turn people away because they are gay. We all have sins in our lives and it is no worse than any other issue.”

Translation: ‘yeah, homosexuality bad, yadda yadda, let’s move on to another subject.’ And don’t think that this ambivalence has gone unnoticed by the more traditional neighborhood gaywatch patrol.

What’s especially silly about the sudden Osteen-hate is that Taibbi had just finished launching a salvo of preemptive accusations about McCain being an inevitable race-baiter (“watermelon-waving” is one particularly polite phrase he uses). But Osteen’s mega-church empire is characterized by a degree of racial integration that few progressive churches can match. I’m willing to get that there’s a far higher percentage of African Americans and Hispanics in Osteen’s congregation and leadership than there are African American and Hispanic writers at Rolling Stone.

I’m also willing to bet that Osteen’s church has given far more money in charity, both percentage-wise, per parishioner, and of course in total, than Taibbi ever has, despite Taibbi’s whining about Osteen’s supposed obliviousness to Jesus/”hippie crap.”

In short, while there’s certainly plenty one can criticize about Osteen, he’s by far least threatening of any of the crowd-pleasing evangelical names McCain could have tossed out to his audience. I’m not exactly in tune with what Osteen believes, but then I’m not in tune with either Obama or McCain when it comes to religion, and I doubt I’d find Obama’s religious inspirations all that compelling either. That doesn’t mean I think they’re all vile: I just don’t agree with how they see the world.

Taibbi, on the other hand, clearly just hates Osteen’s guts. But at least for this atheist, I think that tells me more about Taibbi’s than it does about Osteen. Or McCain.


Is Gay Marriage Posed to “Obliterate” Religious Freedom? Uh, No.

June 17, 2008

As wedding bells ring out in California, opponents of gay marriage are left facing a government and culture that are increasingly failing to take their warnings of impending social disaster seriously.

According to Dale Carpenter over at Volokh, the reason is plain and simple: critics of gay marriage have failed demonstrate that it will cause any tangible harm:

They have tried many harm-based arguments but so far nothing has stuck. Not “evidence” of social decline from Scandinavia or the Netherlands. Not polygamy. Not population implosion.

With that failure in mind, the search is on for some suitably scary gaypocalyptic scenario with which to shock Americans. And the current favorite is the claim, recently advanced by Maggie Gallagher and Marc D. Stern, that gay marriage threatens to destroy religious rights.

Argues Gallagher (who spend the first half of her article aptly demonstrating that she’s either ignorant of or oblivious to swingers):

Gay-marriage advocates are willing to use a variety of arguments to allay fears and reduce opposition to getting this new “equality” principle inserted in the law; these voices may even believe what they are saying. But once the principle is in the law, the next step will be to use the law to stigmatize, marginalize, and repress those who disagree with the government’s new views on marriage and sexual orientation.

Claims Stern:

If past rulings are any guide, it is religious rights that are likely to be “obliterated” by an emerging popular majority supporting same-sex relationships — and it seems unlikely that the California courts will intervene. That’s a shame.

But as Carpenter points out, these fears are dishonest on at least two counts.

First of all, what’s at stake in many of the “horror stories” these and other critics cite are the right of religious groups to discriminate against gay people in situations where the groups are either using government money, or some public assistance, for the relevant function. That’s a rather different matter than religious expression and core worship services themselves being targeted for obliteration or discrimination lawsuits. It’s an issue of a much smaller scope. It’s lame enough when religious organizations generally claim that they should not be taxed, since “taxation is the power to destroy.” But what these critics are essentially arguing that religion is in danger of obliteration unless it receives special, no-strings attached, taxpayer support and legal treatment for their charitable programs.

Secondly, the actual issue in all of these cases isn’t even gay marriage in the first place. Again, nearly every “horror story” that’s cited involves anti-discrimination laws proper. Gay marriage is irrelevant. Carpenter again:

Neither the viability of the discrimination claim nor the viability of the religious objectors’ desired exemption turns on whether the gay couple is officially recognized. In most of the cited cases, in fact, the couples’ relationship was not recognized by the state, but adding such a status to the cases would change nothing about their legal significance. The most egregious abuse of these examples to undermine gay marriage is the Catholic Charities case, which involved the application of a 1989 antidiscrimination law. That dispute arose because the Catholic Church objected to complying with the law for the first time only after gay marriage was permitted in the state. It was a fortuitously timed conflict for gay-marriage opponents given that the state legislature was at that very moment considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

In short, what Gallagher and Stern are really objecting to in these passages are anti-discrimination laws that have been around, in some cases, for decades. If they really oppose those laws, they are welcome to argue their case. In fact, they’re 100% right about some of them, in my opinion: I’m generally against all anti-discrimination laws that affect purely private businesses in any case (yes, even racial ones). But presenting these situations as if they are unique challenges that only now exist thanks to gay marriage is deeply misleading.

And if there really are any good reasons to see California’s latest newlyweds as portents of doom, they’ll have to be found elsewhere.


Ok Skeptics: What’s Next? Immodest Proposals For Political Activism

June 15, 2008

If you haven’t noticed the rising cultural tide of skeptics and non-believers, then maybe we still haven’t made enough of a nuisance of ourselves. Just you wait!

Me, I’d like to take some time to think about where this is all going. What do we want?

Mostly, it seems, just to talk. And that’s a good thing: the subjects we’re interested are abstract: they’re debates about ideas first and foremost. Skeptics have always been the traditional first-line defenders of free inquiry, and we’re not about to give up that role anytime soon.

Still, we seem to have all these people with so many common interests and values. We have conventions. We should, I think, consider having some more concrete goals. Some specific issues we have on the table every election season. And I’m not talking about amorphous things like “better funding for science” and so on. I’m talking about very specific policy proposals: specific enough that some friendly Representative could introduce them as numbered bills on the floor of Congress.

So what should these be? Getting a consensus is always difficult, but other interest groups do it. Skeptics may be, by our very nature, hard to herd, but it’s not impossible. I think most of us could, for instance, get behind a proposal to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which used to helpfully advise Congress on all sorts of complex scientific issues that Congressman and their staffs, rarely have much depth of knowledge about. And if you have your own suggestions, I welcome them in the comments, or on your own blogs (let me know and I’ll link to them at the end of this post).

Here’s my proposal though: that we reform public education. And I don’t mean weigh into issues like vouchers, funding, teacher unions, or any of that. What I mean is that we lobby for a particular set of concepts and skills to become a central part of state and/or federal education standards: a theme that runs through what and how we teach kids to write and reason. Subject disciplines like history, math, biology, English, and so forth, are all important. But it’s just as, if not more important to prepare children to be critical thinkers, to be intelligent and skeptical consumers of mass media, political appeals, and even commercial advertising. To understand logical fallacies. To know how to read an argument and set about responding to it. To appreciate the basic principles of statistics, independent of math level, and the basic pitfalls of interpreting scientific results (regression to the mean, sampling error, etc.) We need civics courses for a new age.

American students have always held an economic edge when it comes to creative, independent thinking: even when our students lag far behind in brute force effort and devotion to studies. I think playing on these strengths is a winning economic and social strategy. I’m not entirely sure yet on how best to sell it to the public, but that’s what Public Relations geniuses are for.

However, we’d also have to be very focused and restrained about how we go about it. All of us skeptics have our favorite sacred cows that we love to target. But in the bitter, rough and tumble world of curricula debates, most of these line-item punching bags are also going to be non-starters. Few of the players and factions necessary to win political approval are going to trust our proposals if they think we’re using them just to smuggle in our partisan views.

I recently scoffed at William Dembski’s petty hopes of trying to cram Intelligent Design down kids throats. There’s a real danger of any effort too similar to his, one that focuses on what to believe, rather than how to think, will get scoffed at, and for much the same reasons.

Just to highlight one example of how skeptical teaching can quickly become politically objectionable, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid fame has a great new educational video out called “Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking” I’m a fan of Dunning’s work, and this video is definately a worthy skeptical teaching tool.

But like it or not, a lot of the specific topics he covers are, sadly, too controversial for a public school. Maybe not scientifically, but politically. Panning over the countless nutritional supplements on store shelves and questioning their efficacy has great scientific and skeptical merit. But in practice, the owner of the drug store that makes big bucks off this stuff sits on the local school board.

And, right or wrong, many of these sorts of interested parties are going to give something like “Dragons” a big thumbs down when it comes to showing it in the classroom. Just to pick another example, the orange-grower lobby is not going to take too kindly to coursework that poo-poos vitamin-C’s cold-fighting powers. By the same measure, as silly as it all is, you can pretty much forget about the State of Florida ever endorsing such a course. Honestly, we’re lucky enough that there isn’t much economic force behind creationism or science education would really be in trouble.

But it’s not that we have to toothlessly stand down on everything just to play nice. That’s not the point. It’s just that in politics, everything has a price. Every issue has an interest group, every interest group is loyal to a faction, and every lost vote means having to scrounge up some more from somewhere else. Eventually, you price yourself right out of the market. So you have to be very realistic about how much you can do at any one time, with any one policy proposal.

And in this case, getting into those fights is ultimately unnecessary. If we focus on the core skills in question, it really doesn’t matter what examples we happen to use in the process of teaching them. And if we can lobby for school curriculums that do a good job of teaching kids how to critically analyze any and all claims, we won’t have to single out any specific targets for them.

We can’t have our cake and eat it too, politically. But we can serve students some cake, and then be pretty darn certain that they’ll eat it at some point, on their own initiative.

Anyway, I welcome constructive criticism on this, or any other policy idea you think would make a good centerpiece platform for skeptics. Is this something you think we could all rally around? Can we flesh it out sufficiently and seriously lobby for it? Or if not this, then what?

What’s next? And who’s up for it?


I’m NOT looking forward to Bill Maher’s Religulous Film

June 15, 2008

Bill MaherOv vey…

In case you haven’t heard, comedian and Politically Incorrect/Real Time host Bill Maher has a new film headed to theaters: a com-ockumentary of sorts called Religulous, in which he sets out to explore, and generally ridicule, the silliness of religious practice and belief.

Now, it’d be rather silly for me to complain about someone criticizing religious beliefs. Or even poking a bit of admittedly underhanded fun at all things theological. But I still can’t in good conscience look at this film with anything other than apprehension…

Read the rest of this entry »


How People Get Here: Bible Quotes and Virginity Edition

June 11, 2008

WordPress rather conveniently allows me to see what sort of search queries bring people to my website: you Google, get a result, click on a link to my blog, and I know all about it. Instantly.

One inquisitive Googler happened to reach my website by asking:

“Are there bible quotes in the constitution”

I don’t think I’ve ever blogged specifically about this question, so allow me to answer it clearly and concisely:

No. There aren’t.

Thanks for your interest!

Sadly, there is a downside to my vast powers of perception. WordPress only shows me a certain, limited length of the original search query. Given that I’ve recently posted about “sex advice from a virgin” (the pope) and Muslim women seeking to regain their virginity, I also get a lot of highly disturbing searches that contain the word “virgin” in them, all leading people to my blog (hopefully, to their profound disappointment).

Anyway, this is all to say that I’m very grateful that, thanks to the wordpress length limit, I’ll never get to see the rest of the following search query:

“how long does it take for a virgin to ha…”

Phew. I think we all dodged a bullet there.


Possible McCain Veep Pick Struggled With Daemons: Literally

June 11, 2008

We’re talking here about Bobby Jindal, the young Republican governor of Louisiana… and apparently once an amateur exorcist and faith healer. He even, according to an essay he once wrote, may have cured cancer!

In any case, Talking Points Memo has the whole story, complete with Jindal’s bizarre narrative.

Whenever I concentrated long enough to begin prayer, I felt some type of physical force distracting me. It was as if something was pushing down on my chest, making it very hard for me to breathe. . . Though I could find no cause for my chest pains, I was very scared of what was happening to me and Susan. I began to think that the demon would only attack me if I tried to pray or fight back; thus, I resigned myself to leaving it alone in an attempt to find peace for myself.

Hmmm.. not exactly the sort of heroic character we might expect from a future Vice President: quietly hiding in a corner, hoping the demon would concentrate on consuming his friend instead of noticing him.

At least he managed to cure cancer while he was at it:

“When the operation occurred, the surgeons found no traces of cancerous cells. Susan claimed she had felt healed after the group prayer and can remember the sensation of being ‘purified.'”

Anyway, do read the whole thing (or, at least, all the excerpts that TPM supplies).

I very much hope for Jindal’s sake that there’s more, in the complete context of the essay, that moderates some of this extremely silly stuff, or that Jindal has a more adult and lighthearted take on things today. But this is a pretty powerful reminder of the fact that many people sincerely believe that human problems can be due to the influence of invisible spirits who are, for some reason, allergic to the Bible.

Now, you’d think that if anyone would be open to demonic possession and thus allergic to the Bible, it’d be us atheists. And yet, suspiciously, it only seems to be people brought up in vivid and violently obsessive religious traditions that are ever inclined to act out these sorts of exorcism events. Meanwhile, I can touch and read the Bible just fine without breaking out into sweats, hives, or obscenities. Maybe I’m just possessed by an exceptionally polite demon?

Or maybe we non-believers are just so gosh darn bad that demons don’t even waste the effort.


Muslim Women Surgically Pose as Virgins to Avoid Disgrace and Death

June 11, 2008

When I first heard about Hymenorrhaphy (a form of plastic surgery on the to restore the appearance of an intact hymen) I wasn’t quite sure what to think. When it was first developed and promoted, the procedure was billed as a benefit to the healing process of some rape survivors, who felt they needed a physical healing to coincide with the rest of their recovery. Fair enough.

But however you feel about that purpose, articles like this, detailing the rise of hymenorrhaphy as a means to deal with a culture clash, surely put a far more disturbing spin on things.

“If you’re a Muslim woman growing up in more open societies in Europe, you can easily end up having sex before marriage,” said Hicham Mouallem, a doctor in London who performs the surgery. “So if you’re looking to marry a Muslim and don’t want to have problems, you’ll try to recapture your virginity.”

The essential point of the surgery, when you think about it, is grotesque: to install a flap of skin whose sole purpose is to be painfully torn apart in later intercourse… all to give a man the satisfaction of a bloody first coupling. In some cases, even to give him evidence of blood to show to his waiting friends and family. Never mind that hymens can be broken for all sorts of other reasons other than sex (medical problems, physical activity, injury): many men and their families are now demanding an official “certificate of virginity” from gynecologists before they’ll even consider taking a marital “test-drive.”

The article highlights one such case in particular: a woman whose hymen was torn from horseback riding as a child who had to take out a loan to even afford the surgery.

“In my culture, not to be a virgin is to be dirt,” said the student, perched on a hospital bed as she awaited surgery Thursday. “Right now, virginity is more important to me than life.”

Unfortunately, for far too many women, virginity and life are often the same thing: the specter of so-called “honor killings” awaits woman that stray beyond the approved sexual traditions of various cultures in the Middle East and Africa.

One of the most gruesome cases in recent memory involved an Iraqi girl who befriended (without any evidence of actual physical romance) a British soldier… and had her throat crushed underfoot and body stabbed and mutilated by her own father. The father was arrested, but then let free.

At the police station where the father was held Sergeant Ali Jabbar told The Observer last week: ‘Not much can be done when we have an “honour killing” case. You are in a Muslim society and women should live under religious laws.

The young woman’s mother, a distraught witness to the crime, eventually fled the family… only to be gunned down in the street. Sadly, this story is far from an isolated incident (as the refusal of Iraqi authorities to prosecute a confessed killer might have already indicated). And it is not only men at fault. This “tradition” has even seen mothers restrain and slit the wrists of their own struggling daughters… for the crime of failing to commit suicide after being raped by their own brothers.

Given these sorts of bloodbaths as a backdrop, it’s hard to fault women for seeking the surgery.

But there’s little room for cultural relativism here. The cultural demands driving women to go under the knife, to fear for their lives and safety, or simply to hate and fear sex and their sexual pasts in general, are not quaint little cultural differences. They are backward and morally vile. They are a practice and an attitude that needs to be opposed, denigrated, and ended. It’s defenders should ultimately come to feel shame and remorse. It’s executioners should end up with the same punishments as any murderers or abusers.

Our own culture is hardly free from pernicious influences on women: including even those that lead women to breast implants and other cosmetic surgery. But there’s a world of difference between the stressful notions of physical attractiveness and the idea that women are “dirt,” fit to be beaten, humiliated, or even killed if they have had sex (or have even been raped) outside of marriage.

Let’s hope that more members of the relevant cultures and religious traditions at least take the attitude of this guy (reacting to a French case in which a recently man humiliated and dumped his wife on her family’s doorstep, accusing her of being impure, and then demanded an immediate annulment):

“The man is the biggest of all the donkeys,” said Abdelkibir Errami, [the Islamic Center of Roubaix’s] vice president. “Even if the woman was no longer a virgin, he had no right to expose her honor. This is not what Islam teaches. It teaches forgiveness.”


Uh, The Ten Commandments on Church Property is Just Fine, You Silly Billies

June 10, 2008

Moses Smash!Ed Brayton has noticed a truly batty story over at the bat-central vanity publication, WorldNetDaily.

For years, the ACLU has been consistently and rather politely explaining that our government is not the proper venue in which to endorse particular religious ideas… let alone to post a list of religious commandments in government courthouses. Naturally, for zealots who believe that no government function is complete without the showy stamp of their particular religious ideology, this principled position is quite frustrating. Also frustrating is the fact that U.S. courts have often agreed with the ACLU.

Enter “Project Moses,” the brainchild of anti-ACLU crank Joe Worthing. The aim of Project Moses is simple: do something that the ACLU is perfectly fine with, that they’d even defend in court as a constitutional right, all in the hopes of pissing them off. Hundreds of Ten Commandment monuments installed on church and private properties later, and so far, no luck.

And lest you think this is all about an innocent love for the Ten Commandments, rather than merely treating holy scripture as an extension of Worthing’s middle-finger:

One Nebraska city’s situation is a perfect example of what the organization wants to do: A citizen brought a complaint against the city government for a Ten Commandments monument hidden in a remote corner of a public park.

It was removed, but one of the Project Moses monuments was placed instead on a street front property. It happens to be only a few blocks from where the complainant lives, and he now has to drive within 15 feet of God’s Laws whenever he passes that location, Worthing said. (emphasis added)

Yes, yes, I’m sure the man is scared stiff of that the voodoo powers of “God’s Laws” (which apparently have an effective radius of only 15 feet) will like… uh, or something. And stuff. Doing what he asked (i.e. just to move the monument off government property) sure showed him!

It doesn’t matter how many times ACLU and other supporters of the separation of church and state explain that they are not trying to ban religion but merely to ensure that the government stays neutral on religious matters. Zealots like Worthing have simply bought into the misrepresentations and scare-tactics of the religious right without any reservation or skepticism. So much so that they’ve actually convinced themselves that they’re striking a blow against us by doing what we suggested they do in the first place.

Sigh. And you know that thing where people are so crazy that they start to sound like they’re in an article from the Onion? Yeah, well, we’ve got that:

“Christians [sic] schools, too, should consider the impact, he said.

Instead of having a cardboard cutout [of the Ten Commandments], how about a 900-pound stone monument in an entryway,” he said. “It’s something like 3,500 times a child will have to walk by that over the course of their grade school years. They just may be able to remember them then.” (emphasis added)

Yes, yes, in schools that generally require children to read and study the bible daily, where public displays of bible verses, prayer, and Ten Commandments already abound, slapping down another huge granite slab is what’s really going to tip the balance. It’s so crazy it just might work. Maybe they can put his Ten Commandments monument right next to the Ten Commandment monument they already have.

Dude, it’d be like, the Twenty Commandments! Let’s launch over it!

Update: In doing a bit of research, the only reference to a monument in a Nebraska city park I could find was the one in Plattsmouth. Unless there is some other high profile case in Nebraska concerning the Ten Commandments in a park, Worthing is either lying, misinformed, or this quote is from several years ago. After several appeals, the court in this case ultimately ruled that the monument could stay on public property.

Also notable in this case was the fact that the courts, which had originally protected the name of the man filing the complaint out of fears for his safety, eventually allowed the Omaha World-Herald to publish it. When they did so, they rather disturbingly included not only his name but also what car he drives, his license plate, his personal and professional details, as well as, charitably, listing the death threats made against him and his family.


New Study: “Abstinence Only” Education Fails Again? Or Not.

June 8, 2008

Ed Brayton is making the case that a new study of high school students provides even more evidence that abstinence-only education has failed in its primary purpose: the reduction or delay in teen sex and disease transmission. The study, which looks to be quite good in terms of dataset and design, basically shows that the steady decline in teen sexual activity and the steady increase in condom use have both leveled off, and both changes came during the time in which abstinence-only education came into its heyday (the early and mid 2000s).

I’m no fan of abstinence-only policies, which are essentially a “pro-ignorance” approach to education. But I’m not so sure we really can take any clear policy conclusions away from this data.

The main reason is that, in the social sciences, we’d expect just about ANY trend to level off naturally whether there were other policy effects or not. Whatever the cause for the decline in teen sex since 1991, there’s only so much you can reduce teenage sexual activity in the first place before diminishing returns set in. The more you reduce teenage sexual experimentation, the harder and harder further decreases become.

This especially makes sense in terms of teens and sex. If we imagine that there is a sort of standard cohort of teens with a natural range of character traits and attitudes towards sex in each generation, then any external effect (like the AIDS scare) which reduces sexual activity is going to be more effective on some students, less effective on others. As this effect increases its influence on each cohort of kids, you’ll effect all the low hanging fruit first (the kids most scared of disease and ambivalent about sex to begin with), and the trend will be fairly large. But as you proceed, you’ve already dropped the sexual activity of many of the prudes down to 0 (and can’t go any further with them), and now what you have left to work on are the kids that are amongst the hardest to convince not to have sex in the first place. Even if the original effect increases dramatically (i.e. AIDS gets more and more scary), it still might not be enough to effect enough of the horniest kids fast enough to keep up the overall trend, year after year.

For all we know, this could be what’s going on here: major social changes in the early 1990s (AIDS, widespread contraception knowledge and availability) spent a decade spreading through the population, and now they’ve pretty much done as much as they can do. Buried underneath these larger trends, abstinence education could have had a positive effect, negative effect, or no effect at all.

All we really can say for certain, from this data, is that abstinence-only education hasn’t sparked any sort of dramatic or obvious revolution in teen prudishness. Other studies, which more directly compare the effects of abstinence-only education to other programs or no program at all, are far more relevant to the debate than this one.


Gay Marriage Today: Why Not Polygamy Tommorow? …Here’s Why

May 20, 2008

Advocates of gay marriage are often far too glib about their institutional goals. Myself included. We dismiss all sorts of slippery-slope and social fears as simply being based on bigotry (and perhaps we luck out there, because we often turn out to be right, even if it was just a knee-jerk accusation). But many of those fears do make logical sense, particularly when social changes are made by judicial rulings based on distressingly broad and unmoderated principles.

One of the most legitimate of these fears has always been that judicial rulings about gay marriage that are based on bare notions of equality and fairness would carve a path towards the legal recognition of, well, polygamy. And with a polygamist cult controversy still driving news cycles, and HBO’s Big Love back for another season, polygamy can no longer be casually dismissed as an esoteric issue.

That doesn’t mean, that it can’t be dismissed though. It just means that it’s going to take a lot of serious work and argument to do it.

And so, over at Volokh Conspiracy, Dale Carpenter has penned a must-read “Cliff’s Notes” version of some of the best arguments against the “gay marriage/polygamy” connection. Personally, I find them convincing. I’d appreciate any arguments concerning why I should not.

As to the recent California gay-marriage decision itself, I’m of two minds. It should come as no surprise that I like the result. But I also have very strong sympathies with the view that the judges in this case (most of whom were Republicans, by the way) are using methods that overstep important boundaries in our system of government.

On the other hand (again!), I have slightly less sympathy given the fact that people often write constitutional and legal language that claims to be based on lofty moral principles and language… but then whine when someone actually goes and takes those principles seriously, rather than merely conventionally. If you don’t want constitutions to be treated any differently than literal regulations and craven contracts of social convention, then don’t write them as if they were shining beacons of truth and justice.

For all the gay couples who will finally be able to codify their partnerships in the law of our society, there’s little to offer aside from congratulations.

Update: Over at Dean’s World, Dean links to law prof John Witte Jr. and his take on the issue. Among other things, though, Witte notes that one of the traditional reasons that polygamy has been verbotten in the West is that is “routinizes patriarchy.” I’m no women’s studies stooge, but that particular reason strikes me as a little implausible except as a very, very recent development.


More on the Pinker/”Dignity” Bioethics Debate, A Reponse to Patrick Lee and Robert George

May 19, 2008

That Steven Pinker article “The Stupidity of Dignity” is now out in published form, and continues to be a source of controversy. For those who detest Pinker’s tone, Russell Blackford has his own, similar, take to the concept of dignity that he penned a few years ago in response to Francis Fukuyama.

A recent commenter suggested I give my own thoughts on one of the Bioethics Council’s “dignity” essays, and I figured I’d expand my comment into a fuller review. The essay/chapter in question is Patrick Lee and Robert P. George’s “The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity.” And they start off with a definition of dignity that I find problematic right off the bat:

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