Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Time Magazine Falls for Intelligent Design Trick

The most recent issue of Time magazine features a cover story on the teaching of the Bible in American high schools. Not just reporting on it—the article was written by David van Biema, Time’s religion writer, who ends by recommending that American high schools should teach two-semester courses on the Holy Bible. The article claims that such a course is necessary for anyone who claims to be educated, and for anyone who would understand American history. However, van Biema fails to make a convincing argument. Here are some of the main points of the article:

Such a class would be constitutional. The article notes that the Supreme Court has decided that, although it is unconstitutional to require students to study the Bible as the received word of God, there is no problem with using it an object of study—in other words, as long as the Bible is being used for historical context or as literature. This is a nice idea in a theoretical sort of way, but in reality, people come down in one of two camps where the Bible is concerned. They either believe it is the inspired Word of God—or they don’t. If a teacher believes that the Bible is God’s word, there is absolutely no way he can teach it impartially. If he doesn’t believe it, his teaching is sure to arouse enormous amounts of controversy. Imagine the riot that ensues when the first teacher tells his eleventh-graders that the first few verses of Genesis are self-contradictory creation myths derivative of many previous such myths, and couldn’t possibly be true. Of course, most people who care enough to become teachers on the Bible are going to be true believers. Just because it would be constitutional to teach a Bible course doesn’t make it a good idea.

People think the Bible contains wisdom. Van Biema cites a poll that says two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answer to all or most of life’s problems. This is actually a good reason to teach students the Bible—it would quickly dispel this notion. Again, though, those who would actually be teaching this class would almost certainly agree with the poll. Students would be taught that prayer with strong faith gives guaranteed results, or that the meek shall inherit the earth. Nice thoughts. Not true.

The Bible is the most influential book ever written. This, too, is a true statement, but it’s not a good reason to teach a high school course about the Bible. Mein Kampf and Das Kapital are also extremely influential books, but it’s not necessary to study every word of them to understand their influence. Reading Psalms is not necessary to understand how the Bible has been used as an excuse for colonialism, genocide, bigotry and homophobia. In fact, one could make the case that the Bible has been too influential, and teaching it in high school would only make it more so. The article makes a big deal out of the fact that there are innumerable literary and pop culture references to biblical stories—there is a full-page picture layout with a photo of Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction and another of Superman looking all crucified. (Did you know “el”—as in Jor-el—means “God” in Hebrew? Wow!) Apparently we should read and study the Bible so we can enjoy The DaVinci Code. Really, if we’re going to teach the Bible in public schools because of the pop-culture references, shouldn’t we be more eager to teach students about Seinfeld or The Simpsons?

Van Beima lists several arguments against a high school Bible course, then dismisses them out of hand. Most of the people pushing for teaching the Bible in public schools are evangelical Christians who are by definition interested in making converts. It’s okay, Van Biema says, because it’s possible for a conservative Christian to teach the Bible impartially. Commercial Bible curriculums contain creationist anti-science drivel. Not much, Van Biema says.

The best argument against teaching the Bible in high schools is the people who are pushing the idea. These folks are thinly disguised intelligent design advocates, attempting to get their pseudoscience wedged into public schools. For example, the author of one of the primary textbooks used in such courses is Chuck Stetson, a graduate of the Wilberforce Forum founded by Chuck Colson (of Watergate fame). This Forum lists among its board of directions two of the usual ID suspects, Phillip Johnson and William Dembski, as well as Marvin Olasky, the prominent Christian reconstructionist and dominionist. These are not innocent Christians only interested in promoting the Bible as quaint literature. This is just another attempt to circumvent legal separation of church and state.

Van Biema endorses the teaching of the Bible, but rejects courses in Comparative Religion because kids are “already overloaded.” He ends his article with a vignette of a classroom in which high school students are taught by a conservative Christian teacher that the Ten Commandments (presumably including “I am the Lord thy God, you shall have no other gods before me”) are to be taken literally. This little play is supposed to relieve us of any concerns about Christianity being taught in the schools. “Sure, there will be bumps along the way,” Van Biema says.

Sure there will.

Monday, March 26, 2007

A Little Musical Interlude

Here's a little Creation Science lesson. The instructor's name is Roy Zimmerman. Thanks to Tartarus for the link.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Space Duds

A headline on CNN.com this morning says "NASA Developing New Space Duds." If you're like me, you're surpised to find out that the article is about new types of space suits being developed by NASA, and not about more in the series of ridiculously expensive failures that NASA has blown into the stratosphere over the last few years. President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration," which includes manned missions to Mars, as well as unmanned probes to the moon and other bodies, will cost 16 billion dollars this year, and will average about 20 billion per year every year between 2009 and 2020, with no end in sight. At that rate, it won't be as expensive as Dubya's other boondoggle, the Iraq war (although it may last as long), but it's going to be a horrific waste of time and manpower. No one has properly explained just what benefit the nation or the world gets from sending seven or eight (presumably sane) young folks to Mars in a tin can, especially when the same amounts of money applied to the unmanned space program would yield much more in the way of actual scientific results.

Not to mention what it might do for our educational system.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

I'm Never Going Back to My Old School

I spent part of spring break visiting friends from graduate school. It was really nice seeing old friends and labmates. Much beer was consumed, good food was made and eaten, and gossip was swapped. I’m very proud of my little group of friends; almost all are working on a Ph.D., and their projects are all interesting, with a brilliant one or two thrown in.

One of my former labmates just completed her M.S., and it was just by the skin of her teeth. My major professor had been hers, too, and they had had major disagreements over statistical minutiae. In the end, he had resigned from her committee, leaving her scrambling to find another advisor. As she recounted the story of escalating arguments and increasingly personal attacks, I flashed back to my last year in grad school, when this same professor had somehow become convinced that I was trying to usurp his research program. He thought that I was intent on hijacking his funding when I left to find a job, even though nothing like that had ever crossed my mind, and even though I wouldn’t have known how to do such a thing. I spent my final year in constant fear of being ejected from the lab, not knowing for sure that I’d receive my doctorate until I actually had the parchment in hand.

My major professor had kicked another student out of his lab several years before. This student, another of my closest friends, found himself without a master’s project with no warning and no explanation. He was forced to complete a non-thesis degree, which made it more difficult to find a Ph.D. slot. He eventually did so, and is now finishing his second post-doc; he’s a brilliant, driven student, but my major professor’s erratic behavior cost him at least two years, and to this day no one but the professor knows why.

Ours is not the only professor that has unreasonably ejected students from his lab. At the same university, another professor kicked two students out of his lab when he decided that his research program was going to change direction and that these two students were going to take longer to complete their projects than he wanted to spend with them. A colleague of mine who got his degree at a different university was nearly ejected from his major professor’s lab because when his father got a brain tumor, the student spent too much time with his dying father and not enough on his research project.

Graduate degrees in field biology often take much longer than those in other sciences. It isn’t unusual for a student to spend three years on a master’s or five years on a doctorate. Bad weather or uncooperative study organisms extend dissertation projects past university deadlines and beyond funding. During this time, grad students are subject to the whims of the major professor. Students may have to teach their professors’ classes and assist with his research or that of their labmates, all while taking classes and performing their dissertation research. There are some conscientious professors that don’t abuse the system, but there are others that treat their students as slave labor, take credit for their research, or give them poor advice and instructions or none at all. The professor can also terminate a student’s research and dismiss him from the lab without giving a reason. The student has very little recourse in such situations. Although the university involved may have supposed safeguards against capricious actions by professors, in reality there is almost no way to force a professor to act in good faith if he or she has decided to do otherwise.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Today's Theme is "Ants"

I was a judge today for a high-school science fair. There were some pretty horrible projects. One was “What Kind of Music Makes My Dog Eat More?” (Answer: Nickelback.) Another was “Do Insurance Claims Due to Collisions With Deer Go Up in November?” (Answer: According to the Internet, yes!) There were a couple of good projects, though, including one in which a girl ran ants through a maze to determine whether they used pheromones or landmarks to find their way. She was somewhat surprised to find that the ants she was using used pheromones; she had read a research article in which a different species of ant was using landmarks.

When I got home tonight, I found about twenty giant ants in my kitchen sink. They were black with rust-colored abdomens. Not as big as bullet ants from Costa Rica or carpenter ants from New Mexico, but much, much bigger than the little Argentine ants you normally find in a house. I turned on the water to wash the ants down the drain, and used the dishcloth to brush a few more off the counter. I felt guilty—I don’t like killing things—but I can’t have ants in the house.

I came back an hour later, and there were thirty or so of the big ants wandering around the sink and the counter. This time when I turned on the water, they began scrambling around as if one of them had sounded an alarm. I could see where they were coming from—there was a crack between the wallboard behind the counter and the counter itself. A few ran back behind the wallboard, while I chased the others around with the dishcloth—I didn’t want to get ant-bit. When I brushed them with the dishcloth, they held on for dear life. Do the ants have a fear of death? They don’t even have a brain—just a pair of ganglia above and below the esophagus. I finally got them all washed down the drain.

My sink isn’t dirty; there are no crumbs or drops of soda to attract the ants. I barely have any food in the house. The ants don’t appear to be congregating anywhere. I remembered the science fair project and scrubbed down the counter and sink—I don’t want any pheromone trails leading ants into my kitchen.

But now there are thirty more ants in the sink. And, there’s an earwig on the floor. What the hell is going on?

Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

The Sumatran ground cuckoo sounds a lot like the temporary first Mrs. Archaeopteryx.