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?


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.


McCain Ally Hagee: Hitler Was Sent By God To Drive Jews to Israel

May 21, 2008

After all the hubbub about Obama’s pastor, John McCain’s chosen political allies are proving equally disturbing, though somehow without equal coverage.

Bruce Wilson from Talk2Action has uncovered yet more disturbing text and audio concerning John Hagee’s bizarre theological declarations. In addition to declaring that Jews have “dead souls” (whatever the heck THAT means!) this newfound sermon from Hagee declares that Adolf Hitler was sent by God to punish European Jews for not immediately going to found the state Israel, and then to drive the surviving remnant there afterwards.

Here’s Sam Stein summarizing the key parts of the sermon:

Going in and out of biblical verse, Hagee preached: “‘And they the hunters should hunt them,’ that will be the Jews. ‘From every mountain and from every hill and from out of the holes of the rocks.’ If that doesn’t describe what Hitler did in the holocaust you can’t see that.”

He goes on: “Theodore Hertzel is the father of Zionism. He was a Jew who at the turn of the 19th century said, this land is our land, God wants us to live there. So he went to the Jews of Europe and said ‘I want you to come and join me in the land of Israel.’ So few went that Hertzel went into depression. Those who came founded Israel; those who did not went through the hell of the holocaust.

“Then god sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter. And the Bible says — Jeremiah writing — ‘They shall hunt them from every mountain and from every hill and from the holes of the rocks,’ meaning there’s no place to hide. And that might be offensive to some people but don’t let your heart be offended. I didn’t write it, Jeremiah wrote it. It was the truth and it is the truth. How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.”

Update: Looks like McCain has had enough of this guy: he’s now rejected Hagee’s endorsement.


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.


Fail? Critics Respond to Pinker’s Essay on “Dignity” as Ethically Worthless

May 17, 2008

In response to Stephen Pinker’s essay bemoaning the vacuity of “dignity” as a concept in bioethics, let’s highlight some critical responses from other thinkers: Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, and Alan Jacobs.

Let’s accept every single one of their criticisms about Pinker’s tone, his paranoia, and his obviously less than impartial personal opinions about people like Leon Kass. Nevertheless, Pinker does very clearly and very directly raise a lot of serious, and possibly fundamental, problems with the concept of “dignity” in bioethics. And none of these writers seem interested in responding to that particular challenge. Which is too bad, because that’s really the only interesting part of the whole debate in the first place.

As one commenter said:

I’m not convinced Pinker has all the answers, but he seems to be taking the dignity argument more seriously than Jacobs, Douthat, or Levin. I tend to expect better of all three of those names. If Pinker was only 20% substance, that’s a higher percentage than any of the rest of us have achieved today.

Just to be a little provocative myself, let me say that I suspect the high regard that conservative scholars have for “dignity” lies in the fact that it, unlike the concepts of liberty and personal autonomy mediated by due process which have served us quite well so far, “dignity” is malleable enough that it allows the otherwise absurd idea that a random citizen sitting on their front porch is violating their own dignity by behaving in a way those scholars find distasteful (like licking an ice cream cone, or holding the hand of their gay lover). This also alleviates the often distressing inability to directly justify their dislikes as being immoral or harmful in any sensible, non-theological fashion.

“Dignity” also has the amazing power to declare morally important actions and objects that have no “personal” capacity in and of themselves: such as nerveless, intention-less cells that happen to have certain proteins active (i.e. fertilized eggs), but lack any objective capacity that anyone can tie to an ethical interest. If you can’t explain why breaking apart an embryo is morally wrong in any sensibly direct fashion, well then you can always argue that doing so is a sort of bitter voodoo-doll assault on humanity’s dignity, by proxy!

As is often the case, I’m being a little glib here myself. But I don’t think I’m entirely without merit either. It’s true that personal autonomy has it’s own gray areas and problems, but it at least makes sense on some concrete level, especially as a principle value in a diverse and contentious society, and that provides a far more promising foundation than a concept that seems to mean everything and nothing. Furthermore, many of its problems can be redressed far more easily than the critics I referenced above allow. Even under a personal autonomy framework, we can, for instance, still understand why respecting the wishes of someone when they are not actively awake or unconscious would be important.

In that spirit, here’s a much more intriguing and substantive response to the Pinker article, from another writer at the American Scene, Noah Millman.


First Things First: Tsunami, Theodicy, and Recycling for Cyclones in Myanmar

May 8, 2008

This wasn’t quite how I wanted to start a series of posts on theodicy, but here we are. In the wake of the recent cyclone disaster in Burma/Myanmar, the conservative religious journal First Things has reprinted any article attempting to reflect on the similarly shocking disaster of tsunami. You might remember First Things from my previous rants on one of the journal’s founders Richard John Neuhaus and his loving fantasies of anguished atheists. Well, a link from Exploring our Matrix led me back there yet again, and this was the result:

Read the rest of this entry »


You Pay, They Pray: National Day of Exploiting the Government to Promote Sectarian Christianity

May 1, 2008

Today is the National Day of Prayer, in which our country seems to assume that religious people are incapable of deciding on their own when and how and with whom to pray without the direction and support of a worldly government.

Via Pz Myers comes word of exactly the sort of thing that happens when secular power gets involved in the promotion of religion: inevitably, only certain religions need apply:

They are also required to only allow Christians to run the show: “I commit that [National Day of Prayer] activities I serve with will be conducted solely by Christians while those with differing beliefs are welcome to attend.”

Auldrich has remained true to her pledge. “It’s a Judeo-Christian observance, and people of other faiths who ask about participating are encouraged to set aside their own day of prayer,” Auldrich told This Week Online in 2006. In other words, if you are not an evangelical, you can go hold your worship somewhere else.

Somehow, religion in our country managed to limp along until President Truman officially declared a National Day of Prayer. Phew! But it seemed that religion was still in such bad shape that it eventually also needed legislative action in the form of Ronald Reagan’s more permanent Day of Prayer solution.

Happily, this must alleviated the problem for most religions. But, apparently, evangelical Christianity is still in such dire straits that it needs some extra-special head-patting attention from Caesar in order to get on with its faith business.

Jews on First says the true meaning of the Day of Prayer has been lost. “What began as President Truman’s declaration of a National Prayer Day for all Americans is now excluding and dividing us on religious lines,” the group said.

Seriously though: why would anyone have ever expected anything different from anything involving the political process? As the founders realized, the practice of government is all about factions fighting for worldly power. It is a process that is both inevitably corrupting and rather obviously unnecessary to the free exercise of religion.

Congressional nonsense on the order of things like National Broccoli Week is silly enough (as the first President Bush rightly realized) without the government presuming to have any role to play in religious matters as well.


Ben Stein’s Expelled! Can’t Face Critical Reviews from Scientific American And Michael Shermer

April 9, 2008

Let me just state at the outset that I’m really quite surprised at this point: as all these negative reviews roll in, defenders and promoters of this film seem amazingly scarce outside of their own protected websites and conclaves. They celebrate, instead, the few positive reviews, almost all coming from devoted creationists, and almost all simply parroting and celebrating the claims made in the film rather than analyzing them, as the critics do.

They talk a big game. Their rallying cry is supposedly for more debate and free speech (even if they badly misunderstand those principles). But I’ve seen next to nothing from either the producers nor their fans making any substantive response to these criticisms. Bragging about the existence of harsh criticism just isn’t the same thing as having a good response to it: it’s a means of quickly changing the subject. According to them, however, defenders of science are “scattering” in fear of their assault. And yet, here we are, front and center, taking all comers, with no sign that they have any serious responses to our arguments in turn.

That out of the way… Michael Shermer, one of the many hoodwinked interviewees from the film, has now written up his review of the picture.

Read the rest of this entry »


PZ Myers Finds an Expelled! Party He Can Crash: Gonzo Creationist Call Outs

March 28, 2008

What if you held an on-message conference call to promote your movie, and everybody came?

Well, the producers of Expelled did just that, and amongst everybody was the last person they wanted to hear from: PZ Myers. Myers listened to them go on and on, but when they started claiming that no one had ever “addressed the content of the movie,” he couldn’t let that stand, and he spoke up and jumped all over them.

Now, this sort of thing isn’t quite my MO, but in this case, I’m with Myers all the way. The Expelled producers have been presenting themselves as brave truth-tellers just looking for a debate, but in reality they’ve been hiding in a tightly controlled bubble of evangelical adoration and press releases. They deserve to get called out on this hypocrisy. I’ve been trying to call them out on this cowardice for some time.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog, or nearly ANY science-friendly blog that’s covered this movie has seen countless posts addressing the claims Stein and his cohorts make in this movie. We’ve covered all of their subjects in FAR far more detail than they have. And we’ve seen almost nothing in return. It’s the standard creationist crackup: they throw out a huge list of plausible sounding but ultimately cynically false claims and then can’t be bothered to stick around and seriously defend them. Instead, they just rush on to the next venue and repeat the same stuff all over again as if no one had ever pointed out their duplicity.

For a concrete example, just compare and contrast something for me. Here’s PZ Myers objecting to the film’s Darwin = Hitler hokum and one of Stein’s rambling anti-Darwin blogs. Here’s the response from the producers.

Who is dodging “substance” here? Myers takes their arguments to pieces, specifically and directly. He’s certainly not nice about it, but he doesn’t dodge their claims, he cuts right into them. Their response? Not to address his points. Not to defend their arguments. Instead they spend thousands of words hinting about the “thought police” and making fun of Myers for actually spending time responding to their harmless little posts!

We’ll see how long they can keep up this little game. We’ll see how long they can keep ignoring the arguments of their critics and hopping from one right-wing think-tank ego-strokefest to another. We’re waiting.

Update: Rebecca over at SkepChick has the audio of the conference call in question.


Best Review of Intelligent Design Film Expelled! Yet

March 27, 2008

Quidam, over at the deceptively named Antievolution messageboards, has decided to review the gallantly Godwinizing creationist film Expelled! in the form of interpretive photoshop:

My next movie will take on the pernicious influence of Sauerkraut!

Brilliant, boyo.


Totally Made Up, Unilateral Blog Carnival! (And a Tiny Bit on Expelled!)

March 27, 2008

It’s time for another survey of stuff worth reading on the internet, so let’s pretend that I’m hosting some sort of esoteric Blog Carnival. Topic? ME! (And for those readers who are getting sick of Expelled musings, good news: I’ve exiled them to the end of this post)

Anyway, let’s get this thing started with a review of the home-birth-homage film “The Business of Being Born” from someone who might know a little about the subject: family practice doc Harriet Hall. Personally, I think she’s nuts to worry about all the hospital-hate in the film. Doctors are dangerous! That’s why I’m planning on going for an “all-natural” coronary artery bypass when my time comes.

Next, Ed Darrell over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub points us towards both Cracked list of 11 Movies Saved by Historical Inaccuracy (in which we learn that Mel Gibson’s Patriot hero was, in real life, a notorious slave rapist) and Yahoo’s own similar listing of Greatest Historical Goofups (in which we learn that Mel Gibson’s Braveheart hero would have had to have sex with a three year old to make any sense). Both lists need to apologize for the ridiculousness of calling 2001: A Space Odyssey “historically” inaccurate. It’s called Science-FICTION, guys.

Over at Exploring Our Matrix, religious religion prof James F. McGrath asks “Can (the story of) Noah’s Ark Be Saved?” I’m not sure if his answer is yes or no, exactly but I’m pretty sure that whatever it is, it’s the right answer. The stories of Noah and Job cannot be reconciled any better to modern morals than they can to modern science. That doesn’t mean that we cannot learn things from them (whether believers learning about God, or even non-believers learning about believers).

Then we have Hemant at Friendly Atheist who sees Jesus everywhere he looks. Fair warning though: be prepared to squint.

To pad out my fake Carnival, I’ll also note Bug Girl’s submission to the all-too-real 83rd Skeptic’s Circle/Carnival. The title is simply irresistible: Pubic Lice: “Sea monkeys in your pants” Speaks for itself, right?

Finally, if you want to know more about my sense of humor, here’s Exhibit A: new internet sensations FAIL blog and Stuff White People Like.

Oh, and in case you yourself had PHAILed to notice it, that big honking graphic over on the top right goes to Expelled Exposed, the soon-to-be official National Center for Science Education response to that expelled movie thingy everyone has been going on and on about. I highly recommend other bloggers doing something similarly prominent to get the word out: feel free to steal my graphic if you’re lazy.

It’s also worth noting that, for some unknown reason, this teensy blog is actually the or at least amongst the top results when you search for information on the film, which is pretty odd, because I almost never post about the darn thing. While I’m flattered, Internet, I can’t help but think that other science sites should be up there instead.

Finally, as I noted over at Skepchick, what is probably one of the most crucial Google search terms in this little PR war, “expelled movie,” didn’t have a single critical, pro-science site on the all-important first page of results. But then, lo and behold, the very day after I complain about it, Phil Plait and I break into the big time! Somehow, I have gained the power to move digital mountains.

Beware!


More Detailed Expelled! Review/Overview & Lying About the Origins of Life

March 26, 2008

Probably the most in-depth account of the film yet: Josh Timonen has written up his basic summary of how the Intelligent Design film Expelled! tries to make its case.

There’s a lot to digest in his account, but in a way, not very much new to talk about. As I’ve noted, there just isn’t a heck of a lot that’s new to the science/creationism debate in this film: it’s like a recently released greatest hits album from a long-defunct 70s band… and they couldn’t even bother to slap together any unreleased tracks or a new cut or anything.

Just to hit on a single aspect while we’re at it: you can’t get much more pathetic than dragging out the Miller-Urey experiment and then claiming that:

  1. it was meant to create life
  2. nothing happened

Both claims are simply ludicrous. The whole point of the Miller-Urey experiment, the whole reason that it’s in textbooks, is that the result was, in fact, very surprising, especially considering the very modest expectations going into it. To not explain what that result was, or to paint the thing as if it were some sort of Frankenstein-switch-throwing-dud… it’s almost criminal.

As should be obvious, Miller and Urey never purported to be creating life, and no textbook claims that this is what they did. What they discovered were that the distinctive amino acid building blocks of carbon-based life as we know it were, in fact, not the universal rarity that scientists had previously assumed.

As it happens, Miller and Urey were working with what was a very preliminary model of what the early earth was like: a simulation that we now know was likely not representative of the general environment. But, also as it happens, this actually boosts the importance of their find, rather than diminishing it: it’s significant that they didn’t have to endlessly tinker and fine tune their experiment to produce these molecules. They got them even just with a very sloppy early attempt. And, as we now know, these molecules form under a very broad range of possible early earth conditions (including those that we now think are more accurate), as well as other key molecules found to form in the conditions of asteroids and other space debris that the early earth was constantly being pelted with (a simple scientific reality that Expelled! apparently tries to ridicule or avoid by lumping it under the decidedly more speculative and whimsical idea of panspermia).

It’s one thing to note that life on earth is made up of the basic raw materials found in the universe and on planets like Earth (carbon, nitrogen, etc.) That’s interesting, but there’s little in the way of specific structure or organization implied there. What Miller and Urey demonstrated was that much of the distinctive core alphabet of molecules that all life on Earth is now composed of… are found forming naturally in the very times and places were we know life likely began. Not only that, but recently studies into the have found that, guess what, the sequences of modern DNA that seem most ancient contain substantially higher amounts of the very sections of the amino acid alphabet that experiments like Miller/Urey’s have shown most readily form in early Earth conditions.

Again: this isn’t the be all and end all of demonstrating that life began via chemical processes, or even answering the question of exactly how. We most certainly do not yet know how life began: no one does. But for those who are actually interested in someday having an explanation, rather than just an opaque theology, it’s incredibly significant: an extremely suggestive finding that, were it not to imply something about the origins of life, would otherwise have to be a pretty amazing coincidence.

There’s really no way for creationists to spin away the implications. So, as we will apparently see yet again in Expelled!, they simply lie about it.

Addendum: I probably should have linked to it in the original brouhaha over Myers’ expulsion, but his daughter Skatje also has her own write-up of the film available.