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…


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?

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.

Expelled Exposed Goes Live With Response to Anti-Evolutionary Film

April 15, 2008

Expelled! is a movie promoting all the standard creationist canards, and Expelled Exposed is the answer to that movie. I don’t have time to review the site in detail until later today, but it looks nice, clean, and fairly comprehensive.

Link, read, and laugh at the idea that “debate” is silenced on these issues.

Why “Where is the ACLU??” Often Ends in Intellectual Tragedy (Islamic School Edition)

April 10, 2008

The ACLU is not a perfect organization (though given that they are not monolithic, it’s hard to generalize). But by and large, they have the right idea about religious liberty, especially when it comes to preventing governments from superseding the rights of citizens to observe or not observe whatever religion they see fit and protecting private religious expression from government interference.

Unfortunately, there are a whole host of (mostly) conservative bloggers out there who seem incapable of distinguishing government action from private freedoms, and who rather ridiculously assert that the ACLU is out to destroy religious practice, rather than protect it from the government. Of course, the big problem for such people is simply all the rather awkward evidence to the contrary. What’s a crank conspiracy-theorist to do?

Well, luckily, they’ve hit upon a stopgap defense mechanism: anytime they come across a potential infringement of free speech or religious expression, an regardless of how much time has elapsed, whether anyone has even notified the ACLU, what the actual facts of the case are, or even if some other organization is already providing counsel, they cry “Where is the ACLU?!!” The implication is, of course, that the ACLU is deeply hypocritical: that their conspiracy isn’t savvy enough to at least pretend to care about this or that free speech/religious expression issue.

The problem is that this rallying cry so often ends in embarrassing tragedy. The latest case in point involves an Islamic school, sponsored by the government, which has apparently been caught coercing its students to pray, amongst other things. Part-time culture-warrior William Wallace raised the predictable cry: Where is the ACLU Now?

Where is the ACLU? The ACLU was all over the Dover PA school district for merely suggesting that life might have been designed by some unidentified creator as a violation of the so-called separation of of church and state. But here in Minnesota, it is “halal” (kosher) to fund Islamic schools.

This righteous outrage lasted for precisely one day, until a commenter happened to stop by and link to a letter from the ACLU to the school, asking them to stop exactly the practices that Mr. Wallace was complaining about. Oops.

And if that weren’t ridiculous enough, the letter is nearly a month old. So it’s Mr. Wallace that’s late to game in condemning the school: the ACLU might well have run their own blog entry entitled “Where is William Wallace on this issue, hunh?!?”

Mr. Wallace’s response?

The letter you cite is very interesting, in that is very friendly. It is as though the ACLU wants to teach the school how to continue to be a public Islamic school.

I’ll analyze the letter in more detail later; might make for an interesting blog.

This is what’s known as “changing the goalposts.” First the ACLU was evil because it was supposedly ignoring the controversy as part of some crafty plot to promote Islam and destroy Christianity. But when that implication became both ridiculous and even anachronistic, suddenly the ACLU is instead bad because their letter warning the school to stop its unconstitutional religious endorsement doesn’t call Muslims enough racial slurs in the process, or something.

I almost can’t wait for Mr. Wallace’s ‘analysis,’ but I suspect it may be delayed until he finds some means to remove the egg from his face.

More: If you’re interested in a vastly more sane analysis of the Islamic Charter School issue, Hemant over at Friendly Atheist has the goods.

The 4th Wave of Creationism: Guerrillas for God

April 5, 2008

As Ed Brayton at Dispatches notes, we now have at least six US state legislatures that are either considering or have already passed so called “academic freedom” bills: Louisiana, Missouri, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama. In various forms, they all claim to protect teachers from any repercussions for teaching what they term “scientific weaknesses with evolution.” The insincerity of this sudden concern for “academic freedom” is obvious, given that the bills do not protect teachers from teaching children about, say, birth control or 9/11 conspiracy theories. Only the usual stalking horse of conservative creationists is fair game for fifth-grade science teachers.

With so many similar bills appearing in such a short time, all with such similar language and intent, it’s pretty clear that we’re seeing a new phase of in creationist efforts to attack evolution in public school science class. For those unfamiliar, the first three main phases have been Creationism proper, Scientific Creationism, and Intelligent Design, all as outlined in this Dispatches post. The phases have all overlapped to some extent (most obviously in the recycling of many of the same arguments), and advocates of prior phases all remain, though often strategically friendly to the newest effort. But this 4th phase doesn’t go under any sort of banner or title: and that, in fact, is the whole point.

Read the rest of this entry »