Bigotry, Satire, and the Left

[CW: Racism]

I used to be a big fan of “Family Guy.” I owned the first several seasons, and watched them repeatedly. I rejoiced when the show came back from its cancellation, even if the interim productions (A “live from Vegas” album and the direct-to-DVD Stewie movie) weren’t spectacular. I listened to the commentaries, which were often just as entertaining as the show itself. I loved how the show skewered right-wing religious fundamentalism, how frequently it crossed into the boundaries of bad taste for a laugh. Like, there was the bit where a JFK Pez dispenser got shot, or where Osama Bin Laden was trying to get past airport security by singing showtunes, and the whole “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” episode. The latter of those never made it to air; the former segments were even cut from the DVD sets. Family Guy was edgy.

Seth MacFarlane, the creator and significant part of the voice cast of the show, is decidedly liberal, and his politics have certainly informed the series. More and more as the show went on, we saw bits lampooning creationists and religion, promoting pot legalization and gay marriage and positive immigration reform.

Unfortunately, as the show went on, we saw more and more of the stuff that eventually soured me on the series. That same “edginess,” that same intentionally-offensive philosophy of “we make fun of everyone,” meant more characters who were stereotype caricatures. Brian’s flamboyantly gay relative, the Asian reporter (voiced by a white woman) who occasionally slips into a “me ruv you rong time” accent for a laugh, the creepy old pedophile. And of course Quagmire, whose ’50s-throwback ladies-man character is eventually just a vehicle for relentless rape jokes.

Seth MacFarlane would probably tell you that he’s not a racist or a misogynist or a homophobe. He would probably tell you that he’s very liberal, that the show constantly makes fun of right-wing ideologies and satirizes even his erstwhile employers at Fox. In satirical parlance, he’d probably argue that his show is “punching up.”

The problem is that, while doing all that punching, he’s not giving any thought to the splash damage toward people who might not be his actual targets. What about satirizing right-wingers necessitates rape jokes and racial stereotypes? Would his satire be as effective without those elements? Might it be better? I don’t think Seth MacFarlane cares much. They get laughs, and when it comes down to it, laughs matter more to guys like Seth MacFarlane than the targets of those laughs.

There are lots of people in similar boats, willing to throw anyone under the bus for a cheap laugh, then defend themselves by saying that they’re being satirical, that because they’re politically liberal, or because they satirize the powerful in addition to the powerless, that they can’t be bigots. They’re just equal-opportunity offenders, treating everyone the same, and you don’t see their powerful targets complaining.

Which, of course, misses the point. It misses the point like a white person saying “well how come it’s okay to say ‘honky’ or ‘cracker’ but not the n-word?” It misses the point like a man saying “female comedians are always telling jokes about men, how come it’s only sexist when I tell jokes about chicks or rape?” It misses the point that when not all people are equal in society, mocking them equally does unequal harm. Author Saladin Ahmed put it best when he said “In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone serves the powerful. It is worth asking what pre-existing injuries we add our insults to.

It’s an important thing to remember when you’re a satirist. Who is your target? Who do you want to hurt, and who might get hurt in the crossfire? Is it necessary to your point for your target to have sex with an offensive transphobic caricature? Is it necessary to your point to dredge up stereotypical slurs against one minority to lampoon bigotry against another? Is it necessary in making fun of racists and homophobes to replicate racist and homophobic imagery?

“Satire” is not a shield that protects its creators from crticism. “Liberalism” is not an inoculation that prevents its bearers from committing bigoted acts. Punching down is a problem. Splash damage is a problem. Not all slights are covered by “but look at the larger context,” not when your “larger context” conveniently omits the context of centuries of caricatures with hook noses or big lips or fishnet stockings.

And, it should go without saying, “criticism” doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun.

Woo Triage

I commented on the recent thing at the Universe blog, but I think the author’s comments in the section where my post never quite materialized warrant some additional commentary, spinning off into something a little more in-depth. I have two fairly distinct things to say with regard to the matter, so in the interest of actually finishing a post in a timely fashion, I’m writing this as a two-post series. Let’s begin!

First, the sour grapes:

I don’t want to seem like I’m backtracking (and I’m very sorry to have typecast Skeptics as fuddy-duddies), but it seems I’ve made too broad an argument about something specific. […] I hate to say that the authoritarian, joyless zeal with which you’ve taken to shredding my point of view is, in effect, exactly what I’m talking about.

Yeah, far be it from a group that you’ve painted negatively with a common, obnoxious, tiresome stereotype to respond to that stereotype with some degree of authority (i.e., being relatively sure of what we’re talking about) and without joy. I suppose we should append a little smiley emoticon every time we sigh, roll our eyes, and start drafting the usual response to inane comments like ‘you just want to tear things down’ and ‘what’s the harm of UFO belief’. What if I said that women make terrible scientists and science fiction authors because they’re too emotional and romantic and not analytical enough? Or that a woman can’t be President because she’ll make the White House pink and bomb someone every 28 days? I wonder if debunking those common, inane canards would make you particularly joyful.


Of course, I tried really hard to infuse my response with joy and humility and giving-the-benefit-of-the-doubt (it’s hard to noun that verb), but it never got out of moderation. Further, the first video in your post–the one which sparks your criticism of skeptics–is apparently presented to criticize Bill Nye the Science Guy. Because as everyone knows, no one is more joyless or authoritarian a mere “debunker” as Bill Nye the Science Guy. And maybe it’s just that my heart is shriveled to a third of its normal size due to years of cynical debunking, but I thought Treppenwitz and Skeptical Ginger also tried to inject some joy and humility into their posts. But I suppose it’s easier to broadly dismiss anything that doesn’t fit your preconceived bias than to concede any point. “I’m sorry for what I said, but this proves that what I said was right” is not an apology.


On to the more substantive points:

In any case, I’m not speaking to any political form of pseudoscience — excuse me, in my bubble, I forget this is a charged subject. Anti global warming “science,” the dinosaurs-and-humans-together stuff, health quackery: clearly a worthy cause for debunking of all kinds.

I guess this may be a place where the sort of hardcore skepticism we typically engage in can seem unwarranted and off-putting. If you divide the woo-world into “harmful woo” and “harmless woo,” then using the same approach for both sets might indeed seem over-the-top.

But skeptics on the whole, I think, don’t make that distinction–at least, not with regard to arguing against it. It’s the same question/criticism that atheists face: why go after the liberal religious people when they’re mostly on our side? In both situations, the answer is basically the same. A person’s beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. The beliefs we hold–and the way we arrived at those beliefs–affect the other things we’re willing to accept and the actions we take. If people could just hold compartmentalized beliefs that had no real effects, then we’d have no real impetus to argue against them.

But that’s not the case. You needn’t look any farther than, say, Mike Adams to see how irrational beliefs beget irrational beliefs. I don’t know enough about Mike to know what beliefs or system for accepting beliefs kicked the whole thing off, but if I had to guess I’d say that his belief in the healing power of alternative medicine led to his rejection of science-based medicine, which led to his distrust of the pharmeceutical industry, which led to his distrust of the government, which is why he thinks 9/11 was an inside job. On one hand, it’s hard to see how “these herbs made my cold go away” can lead to “WTC 7 must have been a controlled demolition,” but the intermediate steps are incremental.

Mike’s an extreme example, sure. And I freely admit that my impression here is based on anecdotes rather than data. But I imagine it’d be the experience of most skeptics that crank magnetism is a strong force indeed: religious fundamentalists seem more likely to believe in possession and witchcraft, newage crystal enthusiasts seem more likely to believe in alternative energy medicine and psychics, and so forth. I’d be interested in seeing a rigorous study done, but I’m not aware of any.

See, it’s not that people just have some irrational belief, it’s that the irrational belief is emblematic of larger potential problems. People have standards for what beliefs they’re willing to accept and what ideas they’re willing to entertain. For skeptics, these standards are set by science and evidence; for believers of various stripes, the standards are set by the tenets of their religious beliefs or the details of their conspiracy narratives, and so forth. The beliefs–and thus, the standards which inform those beliefs–inform how the people who hold them will act, think, worry, vote, and otherwise affect other people around them.

And the effects range from the trivial (Bigfoot enthusiasts buying books on Cryptozoology, Spiritualists buying Ouija Boards) to the wantonly destructive (parents killing their children through religious-based medical neglect, governments condemning people to death through HIV/AIDS denial). No one denies that, which is why you’re more likely to find outrage over Jenny McCarthy than Jeff Meldrum.

But how much does a belief or belief system have to impinge on other people’s rights and well-being before it warrants debunking? Does it need to be death, as in the case of antivaxxers and HIV/AIDS denialists? Does it need to be widespread impending catastrophe, in the case of climate change denialists and GMO fearmongerS? You see no problem, apparently, with the New-Agers and the cryptozoologists; is it similarly unproblematic when legislators waste time and resources on protecting Bigfoot or investigating remote viewing? How much of my tax money has to go to pseudoscience and quackery before I have legitimate cause to be upset?

One of my biggest problems with all kinds of woo-woo is that it has this tendency to completely invert people’s priorities by providing them with imaginary worries and concerns that supersede real worries and concerns. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists become more concerned with remaining pure and sinless than with treating their life-threatening diseases; religious fundamentalists become more concerned with the coming Apocalypse than with helping create peace in the Middle East or fight climate change; conspiracy nuts become so fearful and distrustful of the secret plots of their governments that they overlook real harm that the governments are doing under the light of day. One of the best examples I can provide personally comes from Debra, the conspiracy theorist whose belief in a vague Satanic Illuminati plot to kill most of humanity and enslave the rest, led her to stockpile canned goods, panic over being potentially followed by Men in Black, and seek out truth in comic books and satirical videos. Meanwhile, she had a fairly young son, and had altered her plans of travel and family vacations and entertainment so that she could instead spend the money on supplies for when things got bad.

On one hand, the only people she’s harming are herself and her family, so why should I care? It’s her money, and she can do with it as she pleases, and it’s really no skin off my nose. What purpose is served by arguing against her beliefs if they don’t harm me?

And on the more relevant hand, why wouldn’t I care? Here’s a relatively normal, relatively healthy woman whose irrational beliefs have caused her to make major alterations to her life in order to prepare for a coming catastrophe that will never actually come. In doing so, she misses out on time with her family and causes herself all manner of considerable, completely unnecessary fear and worry. What kept hitting me, over and over in the conversation with Debra, was how tragic her story was. I felt really sad for her, and angry at the Alex Joneses and Jim Marrses who had actively harmed her life by spreading these false beliefs. I argued with her not so I could prove that I was right, but so that I could convince her to seek professional help and maybe have more time to spend with her son than with the phantom enforcers of the Illuminati. I argued with her not because her beliefs harmed me, but because they harmed her.

This is why we argue against even harmless woo: because it so rarely is. Even if it isn’t influencing legislation or policy, even if it’s not killing people or speeding along environmental catastrophe, it’s still affecting people’s lives and doing so in a negative fashion. I “debunk” because I think people’s lives are generally better if they’re employing critical thinking and scientific reasoning. I “debunk” so that I can help people stop living and thinking according to the dictates of fictional narratives and start living in the real world. “Debunking,” as I said in my comment, is a first step–and a necessary one–in the general process of education. And education, as far as I’m concerned, rarely needs justification.


Secession Stupidity

Even the bullshit is bigger in Texas.I was listening to Air America Thursday as I got ready for work, tickled by the teabagging commentary. Among the various funny news items from the event was something that fell out of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s mouth during a demonstration at the Alamo:

Texas is a unique place. When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that.

My hope is that America and Washington in particular pays attention. We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot.

(Source: Houston Star-Telegram)

Well, way to drop the ball, Perry. By all means, secede–I’m sure nothing bad would come of that. We’ll start building a ten-foot-high border fence around Texas immediately, while you appoint Chuck Norris President of your new taxless Neocon utopia. But before you do that, we’ll make sure to close down all the interstates and federally-maintained buildings and programs (including any missile silos, thank you very much) in your newly-sovereign territory, and we’ll make sure all flights into Ronald Reagan have to go through customs first. And while the conservatives decide in droves to “go Galt” and leave the U.S. for the Republic of Texas, we’ll rest easy knowing that, even if they stayed, the Republicans could never win another presidential election without your 34 electoral votes.

But I think we’ll keep Austin, if you don’t mind.

Now, Perry’s right: Texas is a unique place. Specifically, it’s unique in that it was the test case for the Supreme Court ruling which said that states do not have the right to secede. What Perry’s citing here is an urban myth, apparently borne out of ignorance or misunderstanding of the 1845 Joint Resoultion for Annexing Texas to the United States. Texas most emphatically does not have the right to secede from the union (nor does any other state), and while it has the ability to split into five states, it cannot do so without the consent of Congress.

The mocking morning commentary about Perry’s silver tongue (and the teabagging event in general) seemed to leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths. A pair of callers in particular had me itching to pick up the phone and slap them around a bit. The first said that several states had bills or proposals to “exercise their Tenth Amendment rights” or take back said rights, by seceding or threatening secession. Now, this is a profoundly stupid argument: how do you justify leaving the union by claiming rights granted by the union? The rights granted by the United States Constitution are granted to the United States, and not to any other sovereign countries. It’s kind of a Catch-22, I guess: even if states were granted the right to leave the Union by the Tenth Amendment, they’d be forfeiting that right as soon as they left, which means the federal government wouldn’t have to honor the right–or any others. Assuming that secession would be interpreted as an act of war, how long do you think it would take for the feds to recapture Texas?

Just to put one more nail in that idiotic coffin, here’s the Tenth Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Now, I could see where you could interpret the intentional openness of that statement to include “the power to secede,” and furthermore, to assume that that power would be reserved for the states and not the people. The problem with Rick Perry making that interpretation, however, is that the branch of U.S. Government tasked with interpreting the Constitution is not “state governors,” but The U.S. Supreme Court, which has already helpfully interpreted the Constitution’s stance on the matter. Right or wrong, the precedent set by Constitutional law, in particular Texas v. White, explains that secession is not among the powers reserved to the states by the Constitution. The states can propose bills all they like to “reclaim” this nonexistent Tenth Amendment right, but they’re not going to get it without a lawsuit.

The second caller said he was happy that Perry was making these (stupid) remarks, because it draws more national attention to Texas, and Texas is doing a lot of good things with respect to job creation and whatnot. Even assuming that his claims are true (and I see no reason really to doubt them), shouldn’t that be what he wants them to get attention for, and not the idiot comments of their seditious governor? It seems to me that these comments are just going to draw more national attention to the screwups of the young-earth creationists on the Texas State Board of Education, and the legislation to allow the Institute for Creation Research (and any other educational organization) to print out worthless diplomas, and so forth. The best way to draw attention to the good things your state’s doing is to stop electing morons who overshadow those good things with ridiculous stupidity.

And we thought “The Unborn” was bad

So after much anticipation dread, Jon and I finally watched Expelled. I definitely thought about liveblogging it, but honestly, it’s been done better by other people already. I have nothing new to add. It’s exactly as bad as you’ve been told, if not a little worse, and I’m glad that I’ve read the accounts of the interviewees beforehand. I’m also glad that I had the lie-correction subtitles open on my computer (haven’t quite figured out how to get them onto a copy of the disc yet).

The whole film is an exercise in dishonesty, logical fallacies, projection, and the celebration of ignorance. The only time evidence was ever mentioned was in how the “Darwinists” are “distorting” it; there’s no discussion of evidence for ID (or why that would even be a concern), nor is there any real discussion of the typical Creationist talking points against the fossil record, radiometric dating, and so forth. There’s a concerted effort to avoid talking about evidence at all, which I imagine is because even considering it causes the film’s thesis to fall apart.

The movie, as you know, posits a conspiracy–explicitly including “The Academy,” “Watchdog Groups,” “The Media,” and “The Courts”–which is keeping people from even asking the relevant questions about Design and campaigning to keep these crusading Intelligent Design advocates out of the system. It goes against all our American values of freedom and democracy, but the conspiracy goes beyond America. It’s a global confederation that controls science and is against religion, even though ID isn’t actually religious. This conspiracy is massively well-funded and powerful, though prominent scientists, thinkers, and politicians all over the world are questioning the Darwinist dogma. The whole concept is ridiculous–who makes up this conspiracy? How efficient must it be that it can operate so broadly and so powerfully when it seemingly requires its entire contingency to be atheists? Somehow, the tiny number of scientifically-minded atheists is able to subjugate and persecute the vast billions of religious people. It’s global apartheid! And somehow, this massive global conspiracy can’t stop this movie (or the books involved, or the interviews with scientists) from being produced; somehow, this conspiracy doesn’t see the value in pandering to those religious billions. How much more funding would be available if the Big Science conspirators were investigating Creationist and Biblical principles?

The interviews themselves may be the most painful bit of the film. I’ve never seen such dishonest questioning tactics and interviews so shallow due to editing tricks. The questions are frequently leading or loaded, often non sequitur, and repetitive–dear FSM, are they repetitive. Michael Shermer noted in his review that Stein asked him the same question a dozen different ways, clearly fishing for some particular response. This is blatantly obvious in his interview with Dawkins, where he asks “do you believe in God” in at least a dozen different and increasingly frustrating ways. I can only imagine how this might have influenced Dawkins’ other comments; if someone’s being that intentionally obtuse and thick-headed, I can imagine it might lead to some bristling and irritation.

The film is awful in every measurement. It makes Michael Moore’s worst offenses look positively fair by comparison, and I’m pretty sure it invents new ways to be dishonest.

One of the worst things, though, is that the movie really confirmed a lot of my suspicions and misgivings regarding Religulous. Aside from the dishonesty in setting up the interviews, the shallow interviews (largely due to butcher-quality editing), the unnecessary stock footage, the largely out-of-place tone shift toward the end, all echo the tactics used in Expelled. Religulous is still the much better film on all those issues (far fewer digressions into stock footage, the interviews and thoughtful threads are more deeply explored, the leading questions were more clearly attempts to elicit humor rather than objectionable statements), and wins out by virtue of not exploiting the Holocaust to make an invalid point. Even so, I really wish that the comparison of tactics wasn’t so easy and so apt.

So, um, yeah. It’s not an experience I’d recommend. If you’re going to watch it, do it when there’s no chance that you’ll wake sleeping people by screaming at the TV, move any desks and hard furniture out of range of your forehead, and remember the buddy system. Good luck.

…And some have Grey-ness thrust upon ’em

So, Alan Grey provided some musings on the Evolution/Creation “debate” at his blog, at my request. I figured I ought to draft a response, since I’ve got a bit of time now, and since Ty seems to want to know what my perspective is. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

Thomas Kuhn, in his famous work ‘The structure of scientific revolutions’ brought the wider worldview concept of his day into understanding science. His (and Polanyi’s) concept of paradigmic science, where scientific investigation is done within a wider ‘paradigm’ moved the debate over what exactly science is towards real science requiring two things
1) An overarching paradigm which shapes how scientists view data (i.e. theory laden science)
2) Solving problems within that paradigm

I think I’ve talked about The Structure of Scientific Revolutions here or elsewhere in the skeptosphere before. I really need to give it another read, but at the time I read it (freshman year of undergrad) I found it to be one of the densest, most confusing jargon-laden texts I’ve ever slogged through for a class. Now that I have a better understanding of science and the underlying philosophies, I really ought to give it another try. I’d just rather read more interesting stuff first.

Reading the Wikipedia article on the book, just to get a better idea of Kuhn’s arguments, gives me a little feeling of validation about my initial impressions all those years ago. See, my biggest problem with Structure–and I think I wrote a short essay to this effect for the class–was that Kuhn never offered a clear definition of what a “paradigm” was. Apparently my criticism wasn’t unique:

Margaret Masterman, a computer scientist working in computational linguistics, produced a critique of Kuhn’s definition of “paradigm” in which she noted that Kuhn had used the word in at least 21 subtly different ways. While she said she generally agreed with Kuhn’s argument, she claimed that this ambiguity contributed to misunderstandings on the part of philosophically-inclined critics of his book, thereby undermining his argument’s effectiveness.

That makes me feel a bit less stupid.

Kuhn claimed that Karl Popper’s ‘falsification criteria’ for science was not accurate, as there were many historical cases where a result occurred that could be considered as falsifying the theory, yet the theory was not discarded as the scientists merely created additional ad hoc hypothesis to explain the problems.

It is through the view of Kuhnian paradigms that I view the evolution and creation debate.

And I think that’s the first problem. To suggest that only Kuhn or only Popper has all the answers when it comes to the philosophy of science–which may not be entirely what Grey is doing here, but is certainly suggested by this passage–is a vast oversimplification. Kuhn’s paradigmatic model of science ignores to large degree the actual methods of science; arguably, Popper’s view presents an ideal situation that ignores the human element to science, and denies that there exists such a thing as confirmation in science–which again, may be due to ignoring the human element. The paradigmatic view is useful; it reminds us that the human ability to develop conceptual models is partially influenced by cultural factors, and that scientists must be diligent about examining their preconceptions, biases, and tendencies toward human error (such as ad hoc justifications) if they are to conduct accurate science. Falsificationism is also useful; it provides a metric by which to judge scientific statements on the basis of testability, and demonstrates one ideal to which the scientific method can asymptotically approach. But to try to view all of science through one lens or another is myopic at best. Just as science is neither purely deductive nor purely inductive, neither purely theoretical nor purely experimental, it is certainly not purely paradigmatic nor purely falsificationist.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is Grey’s brief mention of ad hoc hypotheses used to smooth out potentially-falsifying anomalies. While I’m sure that has happened and continues to happen, it’d be a mistake to think that any time an anomaly is smoothed over, it’s the result of ad-hocking. The whole process of theory-making is designed to continually review the theory, examine the evidence, and alter the theory to fit the evidence if necessary. We’re seeing a time, for instance, where our concept of how old and large the universe is may be undergoing revision, as (if I recall correctly) new evidence suggests that there are objects beyond the veil affecting objects that we can see. That doesn’t necessarily represent an ad hoc hypothesis; it represents a known unknown in the current model of the universe. Ad hocking would require positing some explanation without sufficient justification.

(Curiously, Karl Popper obliquely referred to Kuhn’s scientific paradigm concept when he said “Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research programme.” )

It’s been awhile since my quote mine alarm went off. It never fails. The quote is misleading at best, especially the way you’ve used it here, and somewhat wrong-headed at worst, as even Popper later acknowledged.

Here I define evolution (Common Descent Evolution or CDE) as: The theory that all life on earth evolved from a common ancestor over billions of years via the unguided natural processes of mutation and selection (and ‘drift’) and creation (Young earth creation or YEC) as: The theory that various kinds of life were created under 10,000 years ago and variation within these kinds occurs within limits via mutation and select (and ‘drift’).

I can’t see anything in there to disagree with. Yet, anyway.

I believe CDE and YEC can both be properly and most accurately defined as being scientific paradigms.

While this seems problematic. CDE, certainly, may be a scientific paradigm (though as usual, I’d like that term to be pinned down to a more specific definition). Why on Earth would YEC be a scientific paradigm? Going back to Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge:

Kuhn defines a scientific paradigm as:
  • what is to be observed and scrutinized
  • the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject
  • how these questions are to be structured
  • how the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted

Alternatively, the Oxford English Dictionary defines paradigm as “a pattern or model, an exemplar.” Thus an additional component of Kuhn’s definition of paradigm is:

  • how is an experiment to be conducted, and what equipment is available to conduct the experiment.

So I can see, under a Creationist paradigm, that one might have different priorities for observations (searching, for instance, for the Garden of Eden or examining evidence for a Global Flood). I certainly understand the matter of formulating questions–we see this in debates with Creationists all the time: “who created the universe,” “why does the universe seem so fine-tuned to our existence,” and so forth. These questions imply what form their answers will take: the first suggests that there must have been an agent involved in the creation of the universe, the latter interprets the causal relationship in a human-centered, teleological fashion. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over years of experience with these debates, it’s the importance of asking the right questions in the right ways. Certainly when scientists were largely laboring under a YEC paradigm, and certainly Creationists and ID proponents looking at various lines of evidence, are interpreting those lines of evidence in particular ways: ID proponents see everything in terms of engineering–machines, codes, programs, and so forth. I’m not entirely sure how a YEC paradigm would affect the available scientific equipment, though.

So I can see how YEC is a paradigm; I’m just not sure how it’s a scientific one. I mean, I can adopt a Pastafarian paradigm of looking at the world, and it may influence how I interpret scientific findings, but that doesn’t give it any scientific value or credence. A scientific paradigm, it seems to me, ought to develop out of science; allowing any paradigm to act as a justified scientific paradigm seems to me to be a little more postmodernist than is valid in science.

Whilst CDE proponents claim that CDE is falsifiable

And Popper, too.

(E.g. Haldane and Dawkins saying a fossil Rabbit in the Precambrian era would falsify CDE), it is easy to see how the theory laden-ness of science makes such a find unlikely.

Um…how? A find is a find, regardless of how theory-laden the scientists are. And it’s not as though evolution hasn’t had its share of moments of potential falsification. Darwin was unaware of genes; his theory was missing a mechanism of transmission. Were we to discover that genes were not prone to the sorts of mutations and variation and drift that Darwinian evolution predicts, the theory would have been worthless. But the study of genes validated Darwin. If we had discovered that DNA replication was not prone to errors and problems, that would have been a major nail in the coffin for Darwinian evolution, but instead the DNA replication process supported the theory. If our studies of the genome had revealed vast differences between apparently related species, with broken genes and junk DNA and retroviral DNA in wildly different places in otherwise-close species, that would be a serious problem for evolutionary theory. Instead, the presence and drift of such genetic bits are perhaps the best evidence available for evolution, and give us a sort of genetic clock stretching backwards along the timeline. It could have been that the genetic evidence wildly contradicted the fossil evidence, but instead we find confirmation and further explanation of the existing lines.

Classification of rock strata was initially (and still commonly) done via the presence of index fossils. (Note: The designation of these fossils as representing a certain historical period was done within the CDE paradigm)

Bzzt! Simply untrue. There do exist index fossils–fossils which only occur in one strata–which can be used to verify the dates of some strata. However, those dates have already been determined through other methods–radiometric dating, which ones are on top of others, and so forth.

Incidentally, if anyone ever gets a chance to look into the various dating methods we have, I highly recommend it. I taught a lesson on it last Spring, and it’s really interesting stuff. You’d never believe how important trees are.

The finding of a fossil Rabbit in a rock strata would almost certainly result in classification of the strata as something other than pre-cambrian, or the inclusion of other ad hoc explanations for the fossil (Overthrusts, reworking etc).

No, I’m afraid that’s simply not the case. If a fossil rabbit were found in a Precambrian stratum, that was below the Cambrian stratum, and both the stratum and the fossil could be reasonably dated back to the Precambrian (through methods like radiometric dating), it would not simply force the redefinition of the stratum. Because then one would have to explain the presence of one geological stratum beneath several others that, chronologically, came earlier, and why there are other Precambrian fossils in this Postcambrian stratum. Either way, the result is an insurmountable anomaly.

Granted, there could be alternate hypotheses to explain how the rabbit got there. Maybe there was a hole in the ground, and some poor rabbit managed to fall in, die, and get fossilized. But then we wouldn’t have a Precambrian rabbit, we’d have a Postcambrian rabbit in a hole, and there ought to be other signs which could demonstrate that (not the least of which that the rabbit shouldn’t date back to the Precambrian radiometrically, and the strata above it, closing off the hole, should be out of place with regard to the rest of the strata. In order to call the stratum the result of an overthrust or erosion or something, there would have to be other evidence for that. Geological folding and erosion, so far as I know, would not affect one fossilized rabbit without leaving other signs behind.

It is worth noting that many smaller (only 200 million year) similar type surprises are happily integrated within CDE. (A recent example is pushing back gecko’s 40 million years in time)

I’d like to see more examples and sources for this. I read the gecko article, and I don’t see where it’s at all what you’re suggesting. This is not an example of a clearly out-of-place animal in the wrong era, it’s an example of there being an earlier ancestor of a modern species than what we knew of before. The preserved gecko is a new genus and species–it’s not as though it’s a modern gecko running around at the time of the dinosaurs–and it’s from a time when lizards and reptiles were common. The point of the “rabbit in the Precambrian” example is that there were no mammals in the Precambrian era. Multicellular life was more or less limited to various soft-bodied things and small shelled creatures; most of the fossils we find from the precambrian are tough to pin down to a kingdom, let alone a genus and species like Sylvilagus floridanus, for instance. There’s a world of difference between finding a near-modern mammal in a period 750 million years before anything resembling mammals existed, and finding a lizard during a lizard- and reptile-dominated time 40 million years before your earliest fossil in that line. There was nothing in the theory or the knowledge preventing a gecko from palling around with dinosaurs, there was just no evidence for it.

The main point here is that the claimed falsification is not a falsification of CDE, but merely falsifies the assumption that fossils are always buried in a chronological fashion. CDE can clearly survive as a theory even if only most fossils are buried in chronological fashion.

That may be closer to the case, as there is a wealth of other evidence for common descent and evolution to pull from. However, the Precambrian rabbit would call into question all fossil evidence, as well as the concept of geological stratification. It would require a serious reexamination of the evidences for evolution.

Many other events and observations exist which could be said to falsify evolution (e.g. the origin of life, soft tissue remaining in dinosaur fossils), but are happily left as unsolved issues.

How would the origin of life falsify evolution? Currently, while there are several models, there’s no prevailing theory of how abiogenesis occurred on Earth. It’s not “happily left as an unsolved issue;” scientists in a variety of fields have spent decades examining that question. Heck, the Miller-Urey experiments, though based on an inaccurate model of the early Earth’s composition, were recently re-examined and found to be more fruitful and valid than originally thought. The matter of soft tissue in dinosaur fossils has been widely misunderstood, largely due to a scientifically-illiterate media (for instance, this article which glosses over the softening process). It’s not like we found intact Tyrannosaurus meat; scientists had to remove the minerals from the substance in order to soften it, and even then the tissue may not be original to the Tyrannosaurus.

It is because of these types of occurrences that I suggest CDE is properly assigned as a scientific paradigm. Which is to say that CDE is not viewed as falsified by these unexpected observations, but instead these problems within CDE are viewed as the grist for the mill for making hypothesis and evaluating hypothesis within the paradigm.

Except that nothing you’ve mentioned satisfies the criteria for falsifiability. For any scientific theory or hypothesis, we can state a number of findings that would constitute falsification. “Rabbits in the precambrian” is one example, certainly, but origins of life? Softenable tissue in dino fossils? Previous gecko ancestors? The only way any of those would falsify evolution would be if we found out that life began suddenly a few thousand years ago, or somesuch. So far, no such discovery has been made, while progress continues on formulating a model of how life began on the Earth four-odd billion years ago.

In other words, you’ve equated any surprises or unanswered questions to falsification, when that’s not, nor has it ever been, the case.

YEC can also be properly identified as a scientific paradigm although significantly less well funded and so significantly less able to do research into the problems that existing observations create within the paradigm.

Yes, if only Creationists had more funding–say, tax-exempt funding from fundamentalist religious organizations, or $27 million dollars that might otherwise be spent on a museum trumpeting their claims–they’d be able to do the research to explain away the geological, physical, and astronomical evidence for a billions-of-years-old universe; the biological, genetic, and paleontological evidence for common descent; the lack of any apparent barriers that would keep evolutionary changes confined to some small areas; and ultimately, the lack of evidence for the existence of an omnipotent, unparsimonious entity who created this whole shebang. It’s a lack of funding that’s the problem.

One such example of research done is the RATE project. Specifically the helium diffusion study which predicted levels of helium in zircons to be approximately 100,000 times higher than expected if CDE were true.

Further reading on RATE. I’m sure the shoddy data and the conclusions that don’t actually support YEC are due to lack of funding as well.

What placing YEC and CDE as scientific paradigms does is make sense of the argument. CDE proponents (properly) place significant problems within CDE as being something that will be solved in the future (E.g. origin of life) within the CDE paradigm. YEC can also do the same (E.g. Endogenous Retroviral Inserts).

Except that the origin of life isn’t a serious problem for evolution; evolution’s concerned with what happened afterward. That’s like saying that (hypothetical) evidence against the Big Bang theory would be a problem for the Doppler Effect. You’ve presented nothing presently that would falsify evolution, while there are already oodles of existing observations to falsify the YEC model. Moreover, you’ve apparently ignored the differences in supporting evidence between the two paradigms; i.e., that evolution has lots of it, while YEC’s is paltry and sketchy at best, and nonexistent at worst. It can’t just be a matter of funding; the YEC paradigm reigned for centuries until Darwin, Lord Kelvin, and the like. Why isn’t there leftover evidence from those days, when they had all the funding? What evidence is there to support the YEC paradigm, that would make it anything like the equal of the evolutionary one?

1) Ideas like Stephen Gould’s non-overlapping Magistra (NOMA) are self-evidently false. If God did create the universe 7000 years ago, there will definitely be implications for science.

More or less agreed; the case can always be made for Last Thursdayism and the point that an omnipotent God could have created the universe in media res, but such claims are unfalsifiable and unparsimonious.

2) Ruling out a supernatural God as a possible causative agent is not valid. As with (1) such an activity is detectable for significant events (like creation of the world/life) and so can be investigated by science.

I’m not entirely clear on what you’re saying here. I think you’re suggesting that if a supernatural God has observable effects on the universe, then it would be subject to science inquiry. If that’s the case, I again agree. And a supernatural God who has no observable effects on the universe is indistinguishable from a nonexistent one.

a. To argue otherwise is essentially claim that science is not looking for truth, but merely the best naturalistic explanation. If this is the case, then science cannot disprove God, nor can science make a case that YEC is wrong.

Here’s where we part company. First, the idea that science is looking for “truth” really depends on what you mean by “truth.” In the sense of a 1:1 perfect correlation between our conceptual models and reality, truth may in fact be an asymptote, one which science continually strives for but recognizes as probably unattainable. There will never be a day when science “ends,” where we stop and declare that we have a perfect and complete understanding of the universe. Scientific knowledge, by definition, is tentative, and carries the assumption that new evidence may be discovered that will require the current knowledge to be revised or discarded. Until the end of time, there’s the possibility of receiving new evidence, so scientific knowledge will almost certainly never be complete.

As far as methodological naturalism goes, it doesn’t necessarily preclude the existence of supernatural agents, but anything that can cause observable effects in nature ought to be part of the naturalistic view. As soon as we discover something supernatural that has observable effects in nature, it can be studied, and thus can be included in the methodological naturalism of science.

Even if all this were not the case, science can certainly have a position on the truth or falsehood of YEC. YEC makes testable claims about the nature of reality; if those claims are contradicted by the evidence, then that suggests that YEC is not true. So far, many of YEC’s claims have been evaluated in precisely this fashion. While science is less equipped to determine whether or not there is a supernatural omnipotent god who lives outside the universe and is, by fiat, unknowable by human means, science is quite well equipped to determine the age of the Earth and the development of life, both areas where YEC makes testable, and incorrect, predictions.

b. Anthony Flew, famous atheist turned deist makes the point quite clearly when talking about his reasons for becoming a deist

“It was empirical evidence, the evidence uncovered by the sciences. But it was a philosophical inference drawn from the evidence. Scientists as scientists cannot make these kinds of philosophical inferences. They have to speak as philosophers when they study the philosophical implications of empirical evidence.”

What? We have very different definitions of “quite clearly.” Not sure why you’re citing Flew here, since he’s not talking about any particular evidence, since he has no particular expertise with the scientific questions involved, and since he’s certainly not a Young Earth Creationist, nor is his First Cause god consistent with the claims of YEC. I’m curious, though, where this quotation comes from, because despite the claim here that his conversion to Deism was based on evidence, the history of Flew’s conversion story cites mostly a lack of empirical evidence–specifically with regard to the origins of life–as his reason for believing in a First Cause God.

Flew’s comments highlight another significant issue. The role of inference. Especially in ‘historical’ (I prefer the term ‘non-experimental’) science.

You may prefer the term. It is not accurate. The nature of experimentation in historical sciences tends to be different from operational science, but it exists, is useful, and is valid nonetheless.

Much rhetorical use is given to the notion that YEC proponents discard the science that gave us planes, toasters and let us visit the moon (sometimes called ‘operational’…I prefer ‘experimental’ science). Yet CDE is not the same type of science that gave us these things.

No, CDE is the type of science that gives us more efficient breeding and genetic engineering techniques, a thorough understanding of how infectious entities adapt to medication and strategies for ameliorating the problems that presents, genetic algorithms, and a framework for understanding how and why many of the things we already take for granted in biology are able to work. It just happens to be based on the same principles and methodologies as the science that gave us toasters and lunar landers.

Incidentally, the determination of the age of the universe and the Earth is based on precisely the same science that allowed us to go to the moon and make airplanes. Or, more specifically, the science that allows us to power many of our space exploration devices and homes and allows us to view very distant objects.

CDE is making claims about the distant past by using present observations and there is a real disconnect when doing this.

It’s also making claims about the present by using present observations. Evolution is a continuous process.

One of the chief functions of experiment is to rule out other possible explanations (causes) for the occurrence being studied. Variables are carefully controlled in multiple experiments to do this. The ability to rule out competing explanations is severally degraded when dealing with historical science because you cannot repeat and control variables.

Fair enough. It’s similar to surgical medicine in that regard.

You may be able to repeat an observation, but there is no control over the variables for the historical event you are studying.

“No control” is another oversimplification. We can control what location we’re looking at, time period and time frame, and a variety of other factors. It’s certainly not as tight as operational science, but there are controls and experiments in the primarily-observational sciences.

Not that it matters, because experiments are not the be-all, end-all of science. Predictions, observations, and mathematical models are important too. Science in general has much more to do with repeated observation than with experimentation. And yes, repeated observation is enough (in fact, it’s the only thing) to determine cause and effect.

Scientists dealing with non-experimental science have to deal with this problem, and they generally do so by making assumptions (sometimes well founded, sometimes not).

Guh? You act like they just come up with these assumptions without any justification.

A couple of clear examples are uniformitarianism (Geological processes happening today, happened the same way, the same rate in the past) and the idea that similarity implies ancestry.

Okay, two problems. One: if we were to hypothesize that geological processes happened somehow differently in the past, one would have to provide some evidence to justify that hypothesis. Without evidence, it would be unparsimonious to assume that things functioned differently in the past. As far as all the evidence indicates, the laws of physics are generally constant in time and space, and those geological processes and whatnot operate according to those laws.

The idea that similarity implies ancestry is not a scientific one. While that may have been a way of thinking about it early on in evolutionary sciences, it does not actually represent science now. Similarity may imply relationship, but there are enough instances of analogous evolution to give the lie to the idea that scientists think similarity = ancestry.

A couple of quotes will make my point for me.


Henry Gee chief science writer for Nature wrote “No fossil is buried with its birth certificate” … and “the intervals of time that separate fossils are so huge that we cannot say anything definite about their possible connection through ancestry and descent.”

Poor Henry Gee; first quote-mined in Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution, now by you. What’s interesting here is that you’ve actually quote-mined Gee’s response to Wells and the DI for quote-mining him! (Which, I realize, you’re aware of, but I read this largely as I was writing the response) Here’s the full context:

That it is impossible to trace direct lineages of ancestry and descent from the fossil record should be self-evident. Ancestors must exist, of course — but we can never attribute ancestry to any particular fossil we might find. Just try this thought experiment — let’s say you find a fossil of a hominid, an ancient member of the human family. You can recognize various attributes that suggest kinship to humanity, but you would never know whether this particular fossil represented your lineal ancestor – even if that were actually the case. The reason is that fossils are never buried with their birth certificates. Again, this is a logical constraint that must apply even if evolution were true — which is not in doubt, because if we didn’t have ancestors, then we wouldn’t be here. Neither does this mean that fossils exhibiting transitional structures do not exist, nor that it is impossible to reconstruct what happened in evolution. Unfortunately, many paleontologists believe that ancestor/descendent lineages can be traced from the fossil record, and my book is intended to debunk this view. However, this disagreement is hardly evidence of some great scientific coverup — religious fundamentalists such as the DI — who live by dictatorial fiat — fail to understand that scientific disagreement is a mark of health rather than decay. However, the point of IN SEARCH OF DEEP TIME, ironically, is that old-style, traditional evolutionary biology — the type that feels it must tell a story, and is therefore more appealing to news reporters and makers of documentaries — is unscientific.

What Gee is criticizing here and in his book, as his response and further information here (4.14, 4.16) make clear, is the tendency among some scientists and journalists to interpret the evidence in terms of narratives and to see life as a linear progression, when in fact it’s more of a branching tree with many limbs. It’s impossible from fossil evidence alone to determine whether two animals are ancestor and descendant, or cousins, or whatever.

See, the problem with letting quotes make your point for you is that they often do no such thing.

Gee’s response to this quote of him supports my point

No, you’ve simply misunderstood it. The fact that you’ve read Icons, somehow find it valid, and somehow think it supports a YEC view, speaks volumes about your credibility.

Colin Paterson’s infamous quote about the lack of transitional fossils makes the same point. “The reason is that statements about ancestry and descent are not applicable in the fossil record. Is Archaeopteryx the ancestor of all birds? Perhaps yes, perhaps no: there is no way of answering the question.”

My quote mine alarm is getting quite a workout today, but I have a distinct suspicion that Patterson is talking about precisely what Gee was: that from the fossil evidence alone, we cannot determine whether archaeopteryx is the ancestor of all birds, or an offshoot of the lineage that produced birds. And a very brief look reveals precisely what I suspected. This isn’t the problem for evolution that you seem to think it is.

A simple thought experiment highlights this concept. Assuming at some point in the future, scientists find some scientific knowledge that makes the naturalistic origin of life a more plausible possibility given the time constraints. (For instance…given completely arbitrary probabilities, say there is a 15% chance of OOL from unliving chemicals driven by natural processes in the lifetime of the earth to date) Does this mean that it must of happened that way in the past? Clearly the answer is no.

No, it doesn’t mean it must have happened that way in the past. However, we can show ways it may have happened, or ways that it was likely to have happened. Merely showing a likely way for the origin of life to have occurred given the conditions on Earth four-odd billion years ago puts abiogenesis far ahead of the creationist hypothesis, due to their lack of parsimony.

Incidentally, as Dawkins explained in The God Delusion, the actual life-generating event needn’t be particularly likely to occur. After all, it’s only happened once in the history of the planet Earth, so far as we’re aware. Given the variety of condition and the timespan involved, that’s something of a low probability.

But even claims of certainty about experimental science is unjustified. The history of science contains many examples of widely held scientific beliefs being overturned. Phlogiston is probably the most famous, but geosynclinal theory (preceding plate techtonics) is a more non-experimental science example. So even claims about experimental science should be made with this in mind, evoking a more humble stance. Comments about CDE being a ‘fact’ or being on par with gravity are unfounded and display a profound ignorance of science and history. Such comments are not scientific, but faith based.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. You’re conflating an awful lot of things here, particularly with regard to scientific terminology. First, as I said above, scientific knowledge is tentative and admittedly so. Scientists are human, and are certainly prone in some cases to overstating their certainty about one given theory or another, but in general we recognize that our knowledge is subject to revision as future evidence becomes available. There is no 100% certainty in science.

Here’s the point where definitions would be important. In science, a “fact” is something that can be observed–an object, a process, etc. A “law” is a (usually) mathematical description of some process or fact. A “theory” is a model that explains how facts and laws work, and makes predictions of future observations that can be used to validate or falsify it. Gravity is a fact, a law, and a theory. The fact of gravity is that things with mass can be observed to be attracted to one another; the law of gravity is F=G*[(m1*m2)/R^2]; the (relativistic) theory of gravity is that massive objects warp spacetime, causing changes in the motion of other massive objects. Evolution is similar: the fact of evolution is the process of mutation and selection that can be observed and has been observed under a variety of different levels of control; the theory of evolution by natural selection is that organisms are descended with modification from a common ancestor through an ongoing selection process consisting of various natural forces and occurrences.

The claims by Gould and others that evolution is a fact are referring to the observable process of evolution. Your argument here amounts to suggesting that since scientists were wrong about phlogiston, they cannot claim with any certainty that things burn.

So how to evaluate between the two paradigms?

Reason and evidence?

This is the question that matters… Controversially, Kuhn claimed that choosing between paradigms was not a rational process.


Whilst not subscribing to complete relativism, I believe there is a real subjective nature between paradigms. Objective problems play a part, but how much those problems are weighted seems to be a fairly subjective decision.

From my perspective, the cascading failure of many of the evidences used to infer CDE is a clear indication of the marginal superiority of the (admittedly immature) YEC paradigm.

False dichotomy. Try again. Evidence against evolution–which, I remind, you have not provided–is not evidence for YEC. Nor is it evidence for OEC or ID or Hindu Creation Stories or Pastafarianism. Each of those things requires its own evidence if it is to stand as a viable scientific paradigm.

Incidentally, you might actually want to look at some of the evidence for evolution before declaring any kind of “cascading failure.” You might also want to look at the evidence for creationism.

Chief examples are things such as embryonic recapitulation (found to be a fraud),

Found by scientists to be a fraud; never central to evolutionary theory.

the fossil record (Found to exhibit mostly stasis and significant convergence),

Source? Experts disagree.

the genetic evidence (Found to exhibit massive homoplasy).

Source? Experts disagree.

Update: And the disagreement between molecular and morphological data.

Nothing in the article you’ve linked suggests any problems for evolution. It merely shows how useful the genetic and molecular analyses are in distinguishing species and discovering exactly how organisms are related; I think you’ll find that most biologists agree with that sentiment, which is part of why there’s so much more focus on genetic evidence than fossil evidence now. Heck, as long as we’re quoting, here’s Francis Collins:

“Yes, evolution by descent from a common ancestor is clearly true. If there was any lingering doubt about the evidence from the fossil record, the study of DNA provides the strongest possible proof of our relatedness to all other living things.”

It is curious however, that even with the near monopoly of the CDE paradigm in science education in America, that only a small fraction believe it. (CDE hovers around 10%, whilst 50+% accept YEC and the remainder Theistic evolution) This certainly indicates to me, that perhaps it is CDE that is not as compelling an explanation than YEC.

So, an appeal to popularity? Yeah, that’s valid. Yes, evolution is believed by a fraction of the laity. Although your numbers suggest it’s about half–theistic evolution is still evolution, and evangelical Francis Collins agrees far more with Richard Dawkins than Duane Gish. Strangely enough, among scientists–you know, the people who have actually examined the evidence, regardless of their religious beliefs–it’s believed by the vast majority. What does that suggest?

Whatever the decision, it is more appropriate to say that YEC is the “better inferred explanation” than CDE or vice versa. Such an understanding of the debate leads to a far more productive discourse and avoids the insults, derision and anger that seems to be so prevalent.

I’m afraid you’ve lost me, so I’ll sum up. Your position is based on an examination of the situation that ignores the complete lack of evidence for the “YEC paradigm” and inflates perceived flaws in the “CDE paradigm” in order to make them appear to be somewhat equal. From there, you ignore the basic lack of parsimony in the “YEC paradigm” and make appeals to logical fallacies in order to declare it the more likely explanation.

Alan, you’re clearly a fairly intelligent guy, but that more or less amounts to your argument having a larger proportion of big words than the average creationist’s. Your use of false dichotomy and argumentum ad populum as though they had any value to science, your quote-mining to make your point, your misinterpretation of popular science articles and assumption that they refute a century of peer-reviewed journals, your ignorance of the actual evidence for evolution, and your postmodernist take on the whole debate, are all standard creationist tactics. You’re clearly intelligent enough and interested enough to correct your misconceptions and your errors in thinking, Alan, and I hope you take this chance to examine the evidence with an open mind and understand that scientific theories are based on positive evidence, not negative evidence against a competing theory. Thanks for the article!

Creationism in my Classroom

I’m going to take a brief break from politics, morality, and not blogging about GenCon to actually blog about something that happened to me a couple of weeks back. As you may or may not be aware, I’ve started student teaching. At this point, I feel like I ought to step up the anonymity; I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s privacy, nor do I want to make myself a pariah. So excuse me if I’m a bit vague; it’s intentional. Also, if it becomes necessary, I may invoke some pseudonyms. Buffy-related ones, no doubt.

Today, a substitute teacher was filling in for my mentor teacher. We’ll call him Mr. Ted. He’s well-known and well-liked by the students. I knew he was a local pastor of some flavor, and whatever, he’s a nice guy and it’s a small midwestern town. I’m not an idiot; I know what’s to be expected.

I did the bulk of the instruction, which mostly consisted of following my mentor teacher’s plans and corralling the unruly high schoolers, while Mr. Ted read some preachery book and helped out as necessary. Now, I figure this is well within his legal rights; I know teachers are allowed to wear cross or Star of David necklaces and other religious paraphernalia, and I would be surprised if they’d be barred from reading religious materials in the classroom. Still, and maybe it’s just because I don’t want to rock the boat or bring unnecessary complications into my life, I wouldn’t sit down and read The God Delusion or Atheism: The Case Against God or something during free time in the classroom. For me, that’d be at least one step too close to endorsing a religious position while acting in the capacity of an authority figure under the state’s employ. But I’m the kind of person who puts a lot of thought and concern into that sort of thing, and one of the privileges of being in the majority is that you really don’t have to. My views and reading materials are more likely to cause problems and offend my students than Mr. Ted’s. And that’s not where Mr. Ted and I ran into trouble; other than the fact that it caused me to mull over the ethical question of what a teacher ought to be able to read in a public school classroom, I didn’t have any qualms about Mr. Ted’s reading material.

No, the real situation is a little more depressing, and a lot closer to illegal. The bell rang to dismiss my fourth-hour class, which is the one right before my lunch break. One of my students, a quiet girl who we’ll call Faith, stayed behind to chat with Mr. Ted. I was busy picking stuff up and packing up so I could go eat, so I wasn’t really paying attention to what they were talking about halfway across the room.

That is, until I caught a snippet of Faith saying “…really believes we came from monkeys.” That gave me some pause, and the next thing I heard was Mr. Ted saying something about how evolution could be “scientifically disproven,” but “they” wouldn’t let it get taught in the classrooms. This, sadly, confirmed that they were having precisely the conversation I feared they were having.

Faith said something along the lines of “he told us” (and by “he,” I assume she meant her Biology teacher) and then launched into a pretty decent explanation of Darwin’s finches. It was slightly muddled, as you might expect from an average high school student, but she definitely had a handle on the concepts. Mr. Ted interrupted her, literally handwaving (as I recall) and gave the standard line–changes, but no they can’t change between species.

At this point, I chime in. “Actually, they’ve observed speciation in the laboratory,” or something to that effect. I’ll be honest here in saying that while I remember broad swaths of the conversation, I have very little idea what was said in what order. That’s not a matter of it being over a week since the event occurred; even immediately after the conversation, I realized that I didn’t know the details. More on the reasons for that in a moment. Anyway, I’m going to do my best to present things as a rough progression, but I guarantee it’s not particularly accurate.

At this point, I think, is when I looked directly at Faith and suggested that she go to, which can answer any and all questions she has about biological evolution.

Here, I think, is where Mr. Ted upped the ante–no longer was it just that some scientists had scientifically disproved evolution, but he has a friend who is a “deep scientist,” who says he can scientifically disprove evolution. I left aside the question about what a “deep scientist” was (he said it like you might say “deep undercover”) and asked instead what field his friend worked in. Mr. Ted replied (after what I recall as a brief hesitation) that he was a biologist. I asked where his disproof has been published; Mr. Ted said that “they” won’t let him.

If I’d had a moment or two more to think, I might have mentioned that the Institute of Creation Research has a journal, the Discovery Institute has publications, why couldn’t his “scientist friend” go to one of them? Certainly they’d be open to his contributions. Instead, I turned up the sarcasm and said “Yes, because science is so rigid and dogmatic,” with emphasis on the last word. Mr. Ted shook his said, and said something that sounded like “I wish…” which I assumed was going toward “I wish it weren’t, but…”

I cut him off at the pass, and said that if someone could disprove evolution, they’d win a Nobel Prize, because it would open up vast new lines of research. If they managed to prove what I’m sure Mr. Ted believes, they’d be up for a certain million dollar prize as well.

I’m not entirely certain where the discussion went right then. Somehow, Mr. Ted started giving his perspective on evolution. “According to evolution [or something like that], with these billions of years that are supposed to have happened, but there’s no proof for–“

I interjected, “which can be shown through multiple lines of evidence.”

He continued, “we should see all kinds of different [species, variations, or something along those lines], and we don’t.” I thought of the vast tapestry of life, the tens (or hundreds) of millions of different known species, with all their subtle differences, tied to one another by the threads of common ancestry and shared genetics, and wondered how anyone could say such a myopically ignorant thing. Unfortunately, my only response was an incredulous “Yes we do!” He then (slightly stammering) reiterated the point about evolution not being able to make new species. If I’d had time to think, or if I’d remembered (or if I’d memorized the Index to Creationist Claims) I might have mentioned the new species of mosquito that evolved in the London Underground, or Helacyton gartleri or something; instead, I said “just recently, in an experiment, bacteria–E. coli bacteria–evolved the ability to digest citrate” (referencing, of course, Richard Lenski’s long-term E. coli experiment). To be quite honest, I think I was wrong that that’s an instance of speciation in the laboratory, but I’m also not entirely sure how they define “species” at the level of unicellular organisms that reproduce asexually.

I want to say that this is where Mr. Ted said “Well, I don’t think that’s the case,” or something along those lines. I know my response to that was along the lines of “you can think whatever you want, but the facts say you’re wrong.” Mr. Ted said “that’s what I’m talking about–scientific facts.” He then said something about DNA, though it wasn’t even a complete thought. If he’d continued on that, I’m not sure where I would have gone. Should I explain that DNA was a fantastic test of evolutionary theory, and could have refuted it when it was discovered, but instead has supported the theory and changed the face of evolutionary science by providing the mechanisms of mutation and evolution, and by giving us a much clearer and more solid picture of how organisms are related to one another? Should I bring up Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current evangelical Christian, who says that the DNA evidence alone proves common descent? Should I talk about specific things, like the broken vitamin-C-producing gene that helps prove common ancestry between humans and other primates?

Thankfully (or not) Mr. Ted spared me the choice, instead saying (something like), “just watch ‘Expelled.'” If I’d had another two seconds to think, I would have said “sorry, I don’t believe everything I see in movies,” or something to that effect. Instead, I was just floored–I honestly couldn’t believe there was anyone who wouldn’t have seen through the blatant tactics and idiocy of that film. So I sputtered “watch ‘Expelled’? Oh, I’ll watch ‘Expelled’.” It was not the highlight of my debate career. I moved on, “‘Expelled’ is full of lies, distortions, and misinformation,” or something to that effect. Mr. Ted just sighed or chuckled or sighckled or something, and I think he said something dismissive. That’s about when he left the room.

Shortly thereafter, Faith came up to me. I think she was there the whole time, and I have no idea how that all played out to her. She asked me “so, are you a science teacher, or…” or something to that effect–a legitimate question, since I’m teaching English. I explained that my undergraduate degree was in English and Physics, and that I’d be certified to teach English and all the high school sciences. I think that was met with a nodding “oh,” and she more or less left the room.

I continued gathering my things in order to go on my now-abbreviated lunch. I shut the door when I left the classroom, and passed Mr. Ted in the hallway. In the spirit of having to work with him for another three hours, I wished him a good lunch, and went to get my things from the teachers’ lounge. When I passed the classroom again, I noticed the door was open. I looked in to see Mr. Ted, eating his sandwich at the desk, alone in the dark.

In terms of education, I’m not sure how successful I was. I certainly don’t think I made Mr. Ted think at all, but at least I gave Faith an alternate perspective and a good resource for her questions. The fact that she asked about my background seemed positive to me, though I don’t think I’d suggest that it was a victory for science and reason. She’s quiet, so I don’t see much difference in her conduct toward me since then, but she also doesn’t seem to think I’m the godless devil incarnate.

What I learned from the experience, though, was why I don’t generally participate in face-to-face arguments of this sort. I was shaking–full-body shaking–from just a few moments into the discussion, and throughout most of my lunch period thereafter. Part of it was nervousness–it was my first week as a teacher in that district; I had no idea (and still have pretty much no idea) what the general consensus was regarding evolution and science and whatnot, nor did I have any idea what Mr. Ted might say to my colleagues while I was out to lunch. I didn’t know what impression this would make on Faith, or what she might thereafter say to her classmates. I don’t know how quickly they would make the equivocation of “evolutionist” and “atheist” in this small town, nor do I know what that would do to my relationship with my mentor teacher and my supervisor, nor do I know how that might affect my evaluation and job prospects. Sure, it’s entirely possible that I could be totally open and honest with my colleagues and suffer no ill effects, but I’d rather do so when I’m operating as an employee rather than a student. I needed to walk the line of science education, to not be dismissive of the beliefs that Mr. Ted and Faith likely shared (since that would no doubt sink my credibility), while also explaining that the evidence disagreed with their faith. I had to present myself as knowledgeable on a subject that is not the focus of my expertise, while also trying not to come off as the stereotypical condescending, arrogant atheist scientist boogieman.

More than that, I was on the spot; normally when I have arguments like this one, I can walk away, get a sandwich, do research, mull over what I’ve written and change it if necessary, link to sources, respond point-by-point, and generally take precisely as much time as I want to draft a response to the average asinine woo or creationist or whatever. I’m used to point-by-point debates without real time constraints, not face-to-face, heat of the moment debates. Debating by text loses a lot of the inflection and emphasis that help convey meaning in normal communication, but I’ll take it any day over the alternative; the parameters, such as they are, ensure a more honest exchange and allow for a much easier presentation of research and evidence. There’s a reason that the Gish Gallop is more useful face-to-face than online: you can’t baffle the audience with bullshit when your opponent has the ability to clean it up as thoroughly as you toss it out. I can’t pull up all the information to respond to creationist claims at a moment’s notice out of my memory with full citations, but I can do it on Google.

The other thing that feeds into that is that I was angry, and desperately trying to hide it (to be honest, I think the nervousness kind of outweighed it anyway). I’ve gotten angry in debates before, but like I said above, I’ve usually got the option of standing up and walking away from the computer. I can cool off for as long as I want, then return to the discussion when my demeanor is more cool and rational. But I couldn’t exactly walk away from Mr. Ted and Faith, any more than I could let him spread his arrogant ignorance without opposition. It upset me to see a schoolteacher flaunting the Constitution and decades of case law in order to promote a worldview that’s as thoroughly debunked as geocentrism or phlogiston. It made me angry that he apparently thought nothing of flatly dismissing and contradicting the teaching of a colleague in the building, when he has no expertise on the subject. It made me angry to think that it’s the twenty-first damn century, and we’re still beating the dessicated corpse of an argument that was settled in the nineteenth. And yet, if I’d lost my cool, I’d have lost the argument.

I’m not sure what to think about the whole event. I certainly don’t think it was a victory for science and reason, but I’m glad I stood up and said my piece. If nothing else, I refused to let misinformation go unchallenged, so that’s something.

Incidentally, Mr. Ted’s subbing for my class again on Wednesday. I’ve taken over the teaching, so he shouldn’t be doing much, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Regardless, I’m going to bone up a bit on speciation.


I haven’t before really taken sides in this whole “framing” debate, which crops up occasionally on the ScienceBlogs. On one side, you have folks like Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet calling for more competent framing of the science debates, calling for more outreach and softer language so as to get moderate Christians on the side of science and reason, calling for people to stop connecting science with atheism so strongly. On the other side, you have folks like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, who are very successful at getting their message out to the public, and who do their best to promote science and atheism to the masses.

Up ’til this point, I thought I could see the value in the framers’ side of things, but that they woefully misunderstood what Myers and Dawkins were trying to accomplish. Myers and Dawkins are working not only to promote science, but to (to borrow Dawkins’ phrasing) raise consciousness about religion and promote positive atheism. They’re doing darn good jobs on all fronts, from my perspective, and I think each front is necessary and has its utility.

Science does need better promotion; it seems to me that we’ve been somewhat adrift since Carl Sagan died and Stephen Hawking left the media spotlight. I’m not sure why Neil DeGrasse Tyson hasn’t completely overtaken that role, since he certainly seems suited and qualified, but I suspect it has a great deal to do with the current climate in the United States and prevailing attitudes regarding science and religion. People aren’t as excited about astronomy and NASA as they ought to be, and the only science that seems to make it to the front pages is what’s on the front lines against religion and conservatism: environmental science and biology. The pendulum has swung precisely toward Richard Dawkins, and his recent releases have been expertly timed to take advantage of the current climate.

Religion does need to be booted out of its privileged place in our social discourse. It does absolutely need to be opened up to question and criticism, and that need is underscored by its current role in American politics. We have a President who consults far-right Christian leaders on a weekly basis with regard to national policy, we have a bevy of political programs designed to promote specific religious organizations, and we have a concerted effort on all fronts to legislate conservative religious morals over people who don’t agree. Religious groups are fighting tooth and nail against education, science, and progress in general, and in many places they’re winning. If religion were the personal thing that it ought to be, this wouldn’t be a problem. When it inserts itself into the public sphere, when it tries to create policies that affect the rest of us, then it can no longer enjoy the untouchable place it might retain as a private process. Religionists can’t have it both ways; they can’t have their personal, private, untouchable convictions and also try to impose those convictions over the rest of us. Something has to give, and since it doesn’t look like the religion-genie is going back into its bottle, then it must be opened up to question, critique, and ridicule.

And positive atheism does need to be promoted. How many of us have been or have known the person who says “I didn’t know there was anyone else who thought the same way”? The phrase is becoming less common, and that’s largely due to the easy availability of atheist thought through popular books and blogs. Atheism is moving from a shameful secret to an open movement, and that is a good thing for atheists, and for religious freedom in general.

So, it seemed to me that the framers either neglected to note that Myers’ and Dawkins’ goals were more widespread than their own, or that they did not see the value in the latter two goals, only that they seemed to undermine the first. They were talking past one another, because neither side seemed to realize what the other’s goals were. And so I more or less ignored the debate, having no particular stake in either side.

But things have somewhat exploded following the Expelled-from-Expelled debacle, and it’s become increasingly clear that there’s something wrong on the framing side of things.

First, we have a chorus of people claiming that this controversy helps Expelled‘s exposure, and “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” or something. The existence of bad publicity is something of a matter for debate; both sides in this argument have brought up the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” though I think that pretty much proves the old adage wrong. I can see how this increased exposure might be beneficial for Expelled, but I think the overwhelmingly bad reviews might counteract some of that.

And it’s worthwhile to note that this isn’t the first time the film has gotten bad press in the New York Times, though some seem to think it is. For the scientists involved to get a chance to rebut the movie’s claims and call out the producers for obvious dishonesty and hypocrisy even before the film’s limited opening seems like a good thing for our side.

Anyway, Matt Nisbet wrote a screed (quoted here) telling Dawkins and Myers to “Lay low and let others do the talking” as Expelled hits theaters, and to defer any questions or comments to scientists more congenial to religion. He explicitly compares them to Samantha Powers and Geraldine Ferraro, as though either of them has specifically insulted someone on the other side (or worse, made explicitly racist comments) and should step down. He calls for other people to “play the role of communicator” of science, apparently unconscious of why Dawkins and Myers might be considered communicators of science (i.e., because they communicate effectively and people like their message enough to read it widely, not because of any top-down appointment), and apparently ignorant of the fact that Myers and Dawkins are speaking out because Myers and Dawkins specifically appear in the film. What message would it send if Myers and Dawkins sat out the movie’s release and subsequent commentary? I know just how the Creobots would frame it–that PZ and Dawkins were ashamed that they’d been exposed for the Big Science conspirators they were, that the claims in the film hit too close to home, that they were scared to admit that the Creationists were right. Silence from the participants would only help the message of Expelled.

PZ, understandably, replied, saying “fuck you very much.” I thought it was apropos. Short, terse, and dismissive, precisely what such a vapid sentiment warranted.

So the new chorus began, about how PZ was being impolite and uncivil, that he was acting like a spoiled child.

And then there’s this, which is fucking ridiculous. Somehow, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Chris Mooney’s blog partner, can say with a straight face that PZ should “mind his manners” and “That kind of language and reaction is simply unacceptable on and off the blogosphere,” and then go on to accuse him of not acting like an adult, of being an adolescent. Mooney echoes the sentiments in the comment thread.

Really? Really? You people are actually going to cry foul at PZ because he used a naughty word? And you call him the adolescent? Last I checked, adults were supposed to be mature enough to handle the use of swear words. I was under the impression that adults recognized that words are words, regardless of how many letters they contain, and that all words were useful in certain contexts. I thought that adults could recognize that whether or not one uses so-called “bad words,” it’s the substance of one’s statement that matters.

That the Framing proponents would attack PZ for breaking some kind of blogosphere no-profanity rule smacks of missing just about every possible point, and it sounds as if they’re blogging in a vacuum (where is this Internet etiquette rulebook?), which seriously calls into question their expertise on how people will react to things.

That’s the heart of framing, right? So far as I understand it, it’s one part tact, one part spin, and one part bending over backwards to win approval.

The first part is the one I can get behind entirely. The very basics of effective communication are knowing your audience, choosing your battles wisely, and using appropriate language for the situation. Here’s a brief example just from my experience tonight: I’m in a discussion-based class, and at one point we were supposed to discuss what some of the key problems are in society. I could have piped up with “religion;” about half the class (teacher included) knows I’m an atheist, so it wouldn’t be unexpected, but I decided to let it be. I didn’t want to have to get into why I was saying it, or into the twisty word games of “well, not all religious people, but certain organizations, and…” that would almost inevitably have to follow. I knew my audience (and moreover, didn’t see any reason to offend most of them unnecessarily) and chose not to fight that particular battle. Later in the class, we were discussing why women were marginalized by society. Now, this was a more worthwhile battle, in part because it was far easier to justify. But while I could have said “religion,” or “the Abrahamic faiths, which have throughout history characterized women in a negative, inferior, subservient light,” I didn’t. In part, this was because I (again) didn’t want to unnecessarily offend my class; in part, it was because I knew the problem went farther than just the Abrahamic religions (Greek mythology does it too, and there are some particularly odious doctrines of this sort in Buddhism). So what I said was “various patriarchal religions” (there may have been slightly more to it, but that’s the bulk of the comment). If I were blogging here about the question, I would’ve been a lot more long-winded and less diplomatic in my assessment.

So I get the call for being tactful, and I’m sure Myers and Dawkins do too. Both are clearly generally aware of their respective audiences; it’s a large part of why they’re so popular.

The spin aspect is something I understand, but I don’t support it quite as readily. It’s important, especially in politics, to be able to present information in a way that supports your position, that works to persuade and present your side of a given debate in a positive light. The problem is that spin doctoring often only works through subtle misrepresentation and lying by omission, neither of which are particularly in the scientific spirit. It’s fine to present scientific findings and the scientific method in a positive light, in order to win supporters, but the spin ought to be minimal, lest it come back to bite us in the collective ass. And there’s certainly a problem with the repeated exhortations that we tell religionists how there’s no conflict between science and religion: it places reality in the subservient role. Granted, there are plenty who would do that anyway, but when we say “no no, you can fit evolution into your religious beliefs!” we’re making a mistake. It’s the religion that needs to fit reality, and not the other way around. The process may be tough on religion (it always is; see also: Galileo), but eventually mainstream religion must adapt to our changing knowledge of reality, not the other way around. It happened with Galileo and heliocentrism, it happened with Ben Franklin and lightning, and it’ll happen with Darwin and evolution as well. Mainstream religion will fit their worldview to the scientific facts, and the conservative fundamentalists will be left behind to deny reality on their own, just like the flat-earthers and geocentrists. But for that to happen, science needs to stand its ground and say “look, here’s the evidence, e pur si evolve,” not “well, if you just look at it from this point of view, reality totally fits into your worldview.” Let the progressive religionists and theologians tell their flocks how religion and science mesh; it just looks like grasping at straws when our side does it.

It’s the “don’t ever offend anyone” attitude of the framers that I can’t stand. It’s at the heart of their calls for someone else (i.e., someone who isn’t an outspoken atheist) to be the “spokesperson” for science, it’s at the heart of their criticism of PZ for using naughty language, and it’s at the heart of their misunderstanding of effective communication, so far as I see it. There is a value in stopping the buck, in being blunt, in calling spades spades and bullshit bullshit. It’s why James Randi has been gainfully employed for the last several decades, it’s why Penn and Teller are getting a sixth season of their award-winning series. There’s a time for being diplomatic, for playing good cop and making friends with the other side and smoothing out the difficulties, and there’s a time for being terse, for playing bad cop and shocking people out of their complacent little bubbles. There’s a reason that “straight talker” is a compliment. The Framers seem to think that people never learn unless you slather the information in honey and sugar to help it go down. They don’t understand that sometimes it works to say “take your damn medicine.”

So until this point I haven’t put much thought into the whole “Framing” debate, but Sheril and Chris’s Puritan “Mommy Mommy, PZ made a swear!” outrage, their holier-than-thou “shame on you” attitude, really made me consider the issue. And it seems to me that the only things they bring to the debate are either common sense (being tactful) or misguided (spin, being totally unoffensive, not seeing the good in promoting atheism and attacking religion).

And the result of all that advice to increase successful science promotion? I can only speak for myself, but I’ve long been planning to pick up Chris Mooney’s book “The Republican War on Science,” though I hadn’t quite gotten around to it. Mooney was even at the top of the short list of people I wanted to invite to speak for Darwin Club a couple of years back, though that didn’t pan out. My opinion of him has plummeted; at this point, if I do ever read his book, I’ll just borrow it from a friend.

I can’t help but think that wasn’t the intended effect.