The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘pseudohistory’

The Campaign to Repeal the Creationist “Academic Freedom” Law in Louisiana

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 21, 2011

I found out just this weekend that there is a grassroots movement in the state of Louisiana to repeal its so-called “academic freedom” law. Now why would anyone want to be against academic freedom?  Because, plain and simple, these kinds of laws are nothing more than a front for pushing nonsense pseudoscience (specifically creationism) in public science classes.

**Aside: For reference, Louisiana is currently the only state in the United States which has a so-called “academic freedom” law, but you can be sure that creationists have their eye on moving things in the same direction in other states (such as in Oklahoma, where a similar bill is under consideration).

The big problem with the “academic freedom” language, which sounds good on the surface, is that it is intended solely as a vehicle to get non-science & pseudoscientific ideas into the public science classroom.  In this sense, it is the latest variation on the old, debunked “teach both (all) theories” or “teach the controversy” tactics employed by creationists in years past.  The intent behind the term “academic freedom” suffers from the same errors as these previous versions: it elevates blatant non-science (or pseudoscience) to the same level as established science, and this leads to all manner of confusion in students.  Would we consider doing this in, say, a history class whereby we allow teachers the “academic freedom” to teach Holocaust denialism on an equal level with the well-established history of the Nazis & World War II?

In my opinion, the “academic freedom” laws are even worse than their progenitors, because since they are so broadly worded (and not limited explicitly to science) they could be applied to any subject.  Hence, my made-up scenario about Holocaust denial above could conceivably be protected under such a law, even though Holocaust denial is utter rubbish & nothing more than racist historical revisionism.  Taken to the logical conclusion, such laws basically take the notion of objective reality and toss it right out the proverbial window.

On the up side, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is a grassroots effort to repeal the law in Louisiana.  Check it out, and please consider lending whatever support you are able (even if it is only to spread the word)…

High School Student Launches Campaign to Repeal Louisiana’s Creationism Law

Building upon a grassroots effort last winter that was successful in fighting off efforts to insert creationism into Louisiana science textbooks, Baton Rouge Magnet High School Senior Zack Kopplin is helping lead an effort to have the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) repealed during the Louisiana Legislature’s 2011 Regular Session. State Senator Karen Carter Peterson (New Orleans) has announced that she will sponsor the repeal legislation.

The misnamed and misguided Louisiana Science Education Act, which was passed and signed into law in 2008, is stealth legislation to encourage Louisiana public school science teachers to include creationist materials in their curriculum. In Livingston Parish Louisiana, school board members explicitly cited this law last summer in their push to mandate that creationism be made part of the science curriculum for the 2011-12 school year.

“State of Belief,” a radio program sponsored by Interfaith Alliance, recently featured a dialogue about the repeal effort between Kopplin and Welton Gaddy who is the President of Interfaith Alliance and a Baptist minister from Monroe, Louisiana. Dr. Barbara Forrest, co-founder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science also was featured on the show. The interview aired Feb, 13, and can be listened to here.   Gaddy said of Kopplin’s repeal effort,

It represents the the best thinking in American science, the best thinking in American religion, and it also reflects the United States constitution.

Kopplin’s role in this campaign was recently featured in an Op-Ed titled “Student takes role of David to creationists’ legislative Goliath” in The Lens, which wrote

Kopplin rightly views the legislation as costumed creationism – ridiculous Trojan horse legislation that lets instructors teach scientific “controversies” where none exist. He understands that when pseudo-scientific “supplemental” materials are used to critique scientific theories (such as evolution or gravity), a false balance results: ungrounded speculations are placed on par with the overwhelming scientific consensus.

For more information, please visit www.repealcreationism.com and see our fact sheet.

Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Progress in the Texas Social Studies Curriculum Fight

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 27, 2009

Not too long ago, I posted about how the Texas Board of Education, which is run by religious zealots, has been attempting to infuse fundamentalist Christianity into social studies classes. As that article states, various groups have lined up to oppose this move, and it seems that – slowly but surely – the campaign to hold the Texas BoEd accountable is bearing fruit.

Here is an update from the American Humanist Association on the issue…

The Texas State Board of Education recently made public the first draft of their new curriculum—and it looks like your hard work has paid off! Bob Bhaerman, education coordinator of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center, has carefully reviewed the draft recommendations and overall has found them to be satisfactory. The curriculum does not appear to paint the United States as a “Christian nation” in any way, nor does it include other historically inaccurate or misleading standards.

Thank you for your support on this important issue.

Despite this welcome development, however, there are still a few sections of the curriculum that could call into question its ideological impartiality. We need to keep the pressure on the Texas State Board of Education to make sure the final version gets it just right. One particularly troubling area includes directives to teach about the influence of religious conservatives and the Moral Majority—without paying equal attention to progressive figures or movements.

Please click here to send a letter to the Texas State Board of Education, commending the first draft but urging them to maintain an impartial balance when it comes to covering ideologies in the final curriculum.

Posted in education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Texas Board of Education Pushes Religious Ideology in Social Studies Classes

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 9, 2009

I’ve made numerous posts here about the Texas Board of Education pushing a creationist agenda in regards to science classes & textbooks, but the agenda of the religious fundamentalists in Texas is much broader than that.

I recently received the following press release from the American Humanist Association regarding an attempt by the conservative wing of the Texas BoEd to use social studies classes & textbooks in Texas to push their religious agenda. It seems that BoEd member Don McLeroy is behind the push to include what are called the “biblical motivations” of the U.S. founders in the Texas social studies curriculum.  This is code for pushing fundamentalist Christianity, folks, pure and simple.

The AHA press elaborates…

The American Humanist Association responded today to a letter from Texas State Board of Education Member Don McLeroy, arguing that social studies classes should not aim to promote religion and should accurately portray the secular nature of the United States government. McLeroy had responded to an open letter the American Humanist Association sent to the Texas State Board of Education last Thursday, prompted by reports the Board had been advised to include the “biblical motivations” of the founders in the state’s new social studies curriculum. In McLeroy’s e-mail to the American Humanist Association, he stated he disagreed with the group and cited an essay he wrote in 2002 titled “The Gift of Medieval Christendom to the World.” (The letter sent to the Texas State School Board of Education can be found here: http://www.americanhumanist.org/news/details/2009-07-humanists- say-to-texas-state-board-of-education-dont-mess-with-texas, and McLeroy’s response can be found here:
http://www.americanhumanist.org/2009/McLeroy_Letter)

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Science and Postmodernism

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 21, 2009

Just a few days ago, I received an email from a colleague of mine in the English department where I teach. The subject concerned the concept of falsifiability in science. The email read, in part…

I have a dim understanding of Popper’s falsifiability principle from History of Time and Wikipedia. Question: how do the string theorists… “get around” this, or is there something about what they do that renders the principle moot?

Note that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the scientific process here. One of the hottest new scientific ideas – string theory – is implied to be scientific not because it is falsifiable, but because there must be some “trick to get around it.”

string theory

Nope. Sorry, there’s no trick to getting around it. In order for an idea to be considered scientific, one must be able to propose a way to test it that could potentially falsify it. Without meeting this basic criteria, science it isn’t. Here’s the highlights of my response to my English colleague…

The answer is that string theory meets the “must-have” standard of falsifiability and is thus a valid scientific idea. Falsifiability is the gold-standard: if an idea cannot meet this criteria, science it ain’t.

For more info on this, here are some proposals to, at least in principle, test string theory for validity:
http://www.physorg.com/news10682.html

The difficulty is that we don’t yet have the technology in hand to conduct these tests. Once the Large Hadron Collider comes completely online, we’ll have a better picture of this question. In addition, there are some proposals to use our knowledge of the cosmic background radiation to test out other aspects of string theory. There is the chance that the new Planck Surveyor probe could do just that – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_Surveyor

The problem with string theory now is that it is in a kind of limbo state, much like Einstein’s theory of general relativity from 1915-1919. Einstein had this beautifully elegant mathematical theory, but many scientists refused to give it any validity until it had been tested. Unfortunately, the technology to test GR didn’t exist then, so they had to wait until the solar eclipse of 1919 to test the first predictions of GR. More on that here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_eclipse#1919_observations

This point about falsifiability is one which many pseudoscientists screw up all the time. Many of them think that science is merely a set of cool ideas which The Establishment is defending dogmatically – not so. If you go to any scientific meeting and someone proposes a scientific idea, very quickly someone will demand to know how to test it. And if the person proposing the idea cannot answer that question, they will be given no validity at all. Science is a pretty harsh process when you get down to it, and the people who are toughest on scientists are often their scientific colleagues.

For example, creationists have a real problem here. They insist that “intelligent design” is a scientific concept (because they say it is!) yet they never propose any method at all for even testing it for falsifiability. They’ve had 15-20 years to develop some kind of testable hypothesis, yet all they can come up with are logical fallacies and claims of a conspiracy to cover up The Truth. And so it goes…

The thing that really bothers me about this exchange with my colleague is that we’ve been here before. He and I have collaborated extensively on subjects of science & philosophy, and I have pointed out the principle of falsifiability to him numerous times, yet he still doesn’t seem to get it. It’s not that he’s a dumb guy – far from it, he’s very well educated and I consider him to be pretty intelligent. I think it has more to do with his particular area of philosophical specialty: postmodernism.

One aspect of the postmodernist philosophy which has been way overblown by some of the more vocal postmodernists is the idea of relativism in relation to science. Loosely speaking, it is argued by these people that science is nothing more than a mere cultural phenomenon, one which naturally develops in all societies given enough time. Thus, they say, there is such a thing as “science” that belongs to a specific group – such as “traditional science” as done by the older, white, and male segments of Western society versus the “new science” done by others.

I cannot even begin to point out how screwed up this thinking is – if one studies the history of science, you learn quickly that science was essentially a lucky occurrence. All of the proper conditions existed in Ancient Greece which led to the rise of natural philosophical discourse, which in turn eventually led to the development of modern science. While it is true that anyone can practice science (in this sense, science is most certainly not limited to white, male Westerners), had the conditions not been just right the Greeks would have never started humanity on this path and there would have been no modern science.

**Aside: An excellent book on this topic is Alan Cromer’s Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science. I highly recommend it!

However, some postmodernist discourse on science gets really silly, and this comes through, albeit subtly, in my colleague’s email. It is the sense that science is merely “just another way of thinking” and that it has no real authority to say what the world around us is like. Often, postmodernists will say that science is merely an opinion.

This sounds goofy, but over the last few decades it has become very problematic. That’s because all manner of pseudoscientists & pseudohistorians have seized upon these concepts of postmodernism to promote their woo. If you pay close attention to the arguments of the woo-meisters – whether they be Holocaust deniers, New-Agers, alternative-”medicine” practitioners, or creationists – they will often make public arguments that make the postmodernist plea that science is “just another opinion” and out of fairness their ideas should be given just as much validity as those of the scientific community.

And, sadly, because many aspects of postmodernist thought have been widely disseminated throughout the Western world (where it is only natural to respect freedom of speech & expression), a lot of people are roped into accepting these arguments. The result has, over the last generation or so, been the gradual erosion of the status of science & the scientific community while postmodernist driven woo has been given “equal time”, so to speak.

The problem is particularly bad in many areas of academia. A perfect example of just how stupid the promotion of postmodernist woo-woo has gotten is outlined in an excellent book, Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.

sokal

Alan Sokal is a hero among many in the skeptical & scientific community for his hilarious debunking of the more extreme aspects of postmodernist anti-science in the mid 1990s via the now famous Sokal Hoax. Fortunately, after the public drubbing that many high-profile postmodernist anti-scientists received once Sokal revealed his deception, they lost a great deal of credibility in many areas of academia.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, Sokal’s excellent high-profile debunking came too late. By the mid 1990s, use of the postmodernist arguments had become widespread by woosters of all stripes. And we are now dealing with the consequences, whether it be having to fight off the “fairness & freedom” arguments of creationists in Texas & Louisiana or dealing with academic colleagues who, due to their embrace of postmodernism, cannot fathom the basics of the scientific method.

Posted in scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Woo Beliefs: What’s the Harm?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 18, 2009

As a skeptic, many times when I argue with people about various woo beliefs, I hear them say, “What’s the harm in believing X?” My answer: there can be plenty of harm in believing in X.

X could be homeopathy, creationism, psychic or paranormal phenomena, Holocaust denial, or all manner of other pseudoscientific or pseudohistorical woo.

The next time you are discussing any skeptically-oriented topic with someone (whether they’re a woo believer or not), and they ask you that now infamous question, refer them to this website – Whatstheharm.net

whatstheharm

That website is a collection of stories relaying just how harmful such woo beliefs can be. As the opening line of the website states:

368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages

That’s a lot of harm. The damage in these stories ranges from minor financial loss, such as when believers are swindled by TV psychics or faith healers, to the death of a loved one at the hands of a “natural cures” practitioner. If you take some time to read through just a few of the topics over at Whatstheharm.net, you’ll see pretty quickly that it is worthwhile to keep tabs on those who push such nonsense and the role that some basic skepticism & critical thinking can play in protecting you from the damage that can be wrought by this woo.

I think it was best said by famous magician & skeptic Penn Jilette when he said…

Well said, Penn. People really do need to see how damaging & dangerous pseudo- and anti-scientific beliefs can be, not just for themselves but the rest of us & society as well.

Remember it, folks – Whatstheharm.net – and refer people to it often. Knowledge is power.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Holocaust Denial in the Vatican?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 5, 2009

Sometimes I feel like it’s two steps forward and one step back for the advance of science, reason, and critical thinking. Case in point, it seems as if the specter of the Dark Ages could be rearing its ugly head in the Vatican.

Now, I’m not going to go on a rant about religion or my many criticisms of various Vatican policies, but what has happened recently certainly bears mentioning. Pope Benedict XVI recently decided to lift the excommunication of British Bishop Richard Williamson from the Catholic Church. Bishop Williamson is an ultra-traditionalist in the Catholic faith, and he was excommunicated from the Church in 1988 by Pope John Paul II because he had been ordained without Vatican permission by the renegade French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

bishop williamson

So what? Well, it seems that Bishop Williamson is a Holocaust denier – a rather repulsive breed of pseudohistorian & conspiracy theorist who believes that the Holocaust never happened or, at the very least, was drastically over-exaggerated.

Just weeks ago, Bishop Williamson stated in a broadcast on Swedish television some of the following claims…

[That the historical evidence was] hugely against six million having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler. I believe there were no gas chambers.

… I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but none of them by gas chambers.

… Anti-Semitism can only be bad if it is against the truth. But if something is true, it cant be bad. I am not interested in the word anti-Semitism.

Here’s the entire interview:

Bishop Williamson’s claims are complete garbage. This is because there are mountains of evidence which confirm the reality of the Holocaust – in fact, there’s so much evidence that the United States has an entire public museum dedicated to preserving the historical evidence of the Holocaust! It’s called the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and it resides in Washington DC, and I’ve toured it and seen this evidence for myself.

But that evidence doesn’t matter to deniers like Bishop Williamson – rather than look at the whole body of evidence placed before them, they tend to cherry-pick the data (taking what they like and discarding/ignoring everything else) for evidence they think might preserve their racist worldview. And even if that evidence doesn’t support their claims, they’ll spin it as if it does. This is precisely the same kind of thinking employed by all manner of conspiracy theorists & pseudoscientists in that, no matter what evidence is presented, the denier’s conclusion that the Holocaust wasn’t real or was drastically overblown is completely non-falsifiable.

Understandably, once this news hit, there was a huge public protest over this move on the part of Pope Benedict XVI. Critics from the Jewish community strongly condemned the move, and there was substantial criticism from within the Vatican itself as well. Yesterday, the controversy hit a fever pitch when Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany (where Holocaust denial is a crime) blasted the Pope for his rehabilitation of Bishop Williamson.

Initially, the Vatican defended the Pope against Merkel’s criticism, but thankfully just today the Vatican has publicly stated that in order for Bishop Williamson to be rehabilitated into the Catholic Church he must recant his views on Holocaust denial.

So it looks as if, for now, more reasonable heads have prevailed over at the Vatican – at least on this issue. However, the mere fact that Pope Benedict XVI even attempted this move in the first place is a bit unsettling to me. I worry that defenders of science & reason may have to cast a wary and watchful eye on Rome for some time to come.

Posted in Holocaust denial | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Ben Stein – Not Expelled, Just Flunked

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 4, 2009

Note: Read up on my recent post, Creationism is Evolving Again, for the full context of this entry.

Well, today I have good news. It seems that would-be “defender of truth & freedom” Ben Stein has received a rather public smackdown. For those of you who may not recall, Ben Stein – in addition to making Clear Eyes eye-drops and the phrase “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” famous – was the poster child for the disastrously-received creationist propaganda film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

expelled ben stein

When promoting the film last year, in addition to spewing the usual creationist nonsense such as insisting that “Darwinism” was responsible for Nazism & the Holocaust and alluding to an “Darwinist” conspiracy to rid academia of “people who just want to ask questions”, Stein reached new lows during an interview on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). In this interview, Stein stated, unequivocally…

When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you.

…Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.

You can see the entire exchange in the TBN interview in the first part of this online video, Why do people laugh at creationists? (part 24)

Well, it seems that Stein was asked to give the 2009 commencement address at the University of Vermont (UVM). Apparently, when word got out that Stein was to deliver this speech at UVM, where he tried to promote Expelled last spring, there were plenty of people who got upset about it. Think about it: here was a man who had promoted a film which blatantly misrepresented both the scientific & academic communities in the promotion of a pseudoscientific & pseudohistorical agenda giving the commencement address at a major university? Yeah, it didn’t make sense to me, either.

Long story short, there was an organized campaign, by people inside and outside of the university, to express displeasure with the choice of an anti-science nut like Stein to deliver such a high-profile speech. Much of the negative feedback the university received is outlined at this transcript of an interview with UVM President Daniel Mark Fogel. Eventually, after such a public outcry, Stein voluntarily withdrew from giving the commencement speech, and he stated so publicly.

From the press-release outlining Stein’s withdrawal from the speech…

I am writing to inform you that Ben Stein, a renowned economist and public personality, has informed me of his decision to withdraw from our Commencement ceremonies in May.

… Mr. Stein has also expressed opinions on subjects unrelated to economics, most notably with respect to evolutionary theory, intelligent design, and the role of science in the Holocaust. Those views are highly controversial, to say the least. Following the announcement of Mr. Stein as Commencement speaker, profound concerns have been expressed to me by persons both internal and external to the University about his selection. Once I apprised Mr. Stein of these communications, he immediately and most graciously declined our Commencement invitation.

Now, what’s really interesting about this whole affair is the creationist reaction to Stein’s voluntarily withdrawing from speaking at UVM. True to form, those consummate whiners at the mega-creationist “think” tank called the Discovery Institute have decided to spin this whole situation as another example of the supposed dogma promoted by Darwinists. They further maintain that because Stein voluntarily withdrew that it is evidence for a vast conspiracy to prevent open & honest criticism of evolutionary science. If these IDiots keep spinning in their tin-foil hats any faster, they’re going to achieve liftoff.

Of course, the irony behind the creationists claiming that they aren’t being allowed to freely criticize science & evolution specifically is that these same people shut down open debate and criticism of Expelled when they were trying to promote it! From attempting to blatantly manipulate the media at press events to employing dishonest interviewing tactics, the creationists behind this waste of a movie displayed an astonishing level of hypocrisy. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black – sheesh!

Well, all I can say to Ben Stein is this: you weren’t expelled Ben, you just plain flunked. And to the all the creationist whiners out there, it’s time you grew up and joined us in the 21st century.

Posted in creationism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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