Dear Mr. President,

Here’s what I did today instead of blogging.

June 12, 2009

President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

I have been a supporter of yours since I could vote. I was a student at Augustana College when you spoke there in 2005, shortly after your election to the Senate. There are things you said in that speech that resonate with me even today, and I hoped even then that you’d turn your intellect and oratorical skills toward the Presidency. When you announced your Presidential candidacy, I was among the thousands rejoicing around the courthouse in Springfield. When you took office in January, I knew it would usher in the amazing changes that you promised over the course of your campaign. The months since have been rocky. I do not envy you your position, trying to save the nation from two mismanaged wars, a faltering economy, collapsing industries, a disgraceful healthcare system, and the threat of a global pandemic. You have done much already to clean up the mistakes of the previous administration and to keep the country afloat despite rough and uncertain waters.

And over these difficult months, I’ve questioned some of your decisions. I think the nation collectively dodged a bullet when Tom Daschle declined the nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Services, given his history with unproven and often unsafe “alternative” medicine. I’ve wondered why the tax cuts for the wealthy have not been rolled back, why I hear that military tribunals are once again being considered for Guantanamo detainees, and why the government can’t just give some stimulus money directly to the middle class citizens who need it. But through my questioning, I’ve always thought that you had the country’s best interests in mind, and that your actions have been a measured and thoughtful, rather than radical and sweeping, approach to progressive changes.

But today, I read that your Department of Justice has filed a brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). I realize that this falls well within your repeated statements that you do not support same-sex marriage, but instead support granting marriage protections to same-sex couples under some different name (civil unions). I find that position questionable enough, but I supported you in spite of it—surely, it was better than your predecessor and opponent’s positions on the matter. More recently, you said that you “don’t think it makes sense for the federal government to get in the business of determining what marriage is.” Again, I’d prefer a more proactive stance (and I’m sure your legions of supporters in the GLBT community would as well), but this recent defense of DOMA gives the lie to that noninterventionist position. If the federal government is not in the business of determining what marriage is, then why throw your support behind a federal law which attempts to do precisely that?

Even that might be forgivable, albeit profoundly hypocritical, were it not for the arguments used in defense of DOMA, which read like hateful right-wing talking points. Your administration compared same-sex marriage to incest and marrying children! That’s one ‘marriage to a pet’ citation away from a Rick Santorum stump speech. Further, the brief argues that same-sex marriage would be prohibitively costly to the country, that DOMA is constitutional in spite of Equal Protection clauses and the Fourteenth Amendment, that homosexuals have the right to marry, as long as they marry people of the opposite sex, and effectively ensures that your administration sees homosexuals as second-class citizens, since they are not “entitled to certain federal benefits.”

This position, Mr. President, is disgusting, deplorable, and hateful. If the federal government is not in the business of defining marriage, then keep the federal government neutral. Allow DOMA to be overturned, if that is the court’s decision. Don’t engage in doublespeak on this level, claiming to be a friend of gays and lesbians one night and comparing them to statutory rapists another.
Your previously-affirmed neutrality would be a better option, but still a nonsensical one. I cannot fathom why the right to marriage, a civil institution, would be afforded to some citizens and denied to others. Nor can I fathom how anyone could argue that this denial is not discriminatory. The case against marrying children is based on the matter of consent; children cannot marry because they cannot legally enter into contractual agreements or consent to sexual activity with adults. The case against incestuous marriage is less legally defensible, but can at least be reasonably supported. What is the case against same-sex marriage? Can it be made without falling back on fallacious comparisons to incest or appeals to religion or tradition? And if such a case can be made against same-sex marriage, a case which outlines why two consenting adults should not have the right to enter into a civil marriage contract based on their combination of genders, then why would that same case not apply to civil unions, or any other separate-but-equal rebranding of marriage? If it would be costly or dangerous to allow same-sex couples to marry, then wouldn’t it be equally costly or dangerous to allow them to form civil unions? Why haven’t Massachusetts, Connecticut, or Iowa been undone by those pitfalls? If same-sex marriage would bankrupt the nation, why didn’t it bankrupt California, and why would California not annul the 18,000 marriages which had been conducted during the period of legality? If the financial risk is so great that it warrants the denial of basic civil rights to a minority and the establishment of a second-class citizenry, then why are so many states jumping on the legalization bandwagon?

I am not homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered myself, Mr. President. My rights are not in any danger, but I am committed to the equal treatment of all persons under the law. I cannot see any reason to deny any consenting adult the right to marry any other consenting adult, and I would hope that a reasonable and intelligent man like you would recognize that the position against same-sex marriage is simply untenable. If it were otherwise, then your administration would not have to resort to defending DOMA with the same logical fallacies peddled by the right wing. It makes me happy to see that other state courts and legislations have recognized the flaws in the anti- equality position, and I feel confident that the vast majority of the United States will recognize same-sex marriage in my lifetime. Progress marches on, as it always has. I only wish you could be leading the parade instead of standing in its way.

And yes, it’s going in the mail tomorrow. There’s a lot of things I haven’t quite agreed with from this administration, but none of them have caused me to write an actual letter (I did e-mail about Daschle’s appointment as head of Health and Human Services, though). This, however, is utterly outrageous.

For more outrage, see this and this and this and this and this.


Update: Well, at least the Bushite rhetoric makes sense, now. Of course, that doesn’t really make it any better.

I am a dumbass

By my count, I have about 87 days of summer this year. This includes thirteen distinct and individual Saturdays. I have made precisely two specific commitments this summer. What are the chances they’d fall on the same day?

At this point, the chances are 1/1. You may have heard that the Action Skeptics, Wikinite, and I would be doing a skeptics’ panel at GenCon this year. As it turns out, while that’s going on in Indiana, I’m scheduled to be a Groomsman in Minnesota. Face, meet palm; head, meet desk.

So, I’m not going to be able to be on the panel, and while I really want to go to my friend’s wedding, I’m also really going to miss GenCon this year. This means that you all ought to be going to the Action Skeptics’ awesome skeptical presentation, and then telling me all about it.

Feel free to make this into an open thread about how much I suck.

Still alive

So, I just got an XBox 360. And consequently, I just got XBox Live. And consequently started a gamertag and such. I don’t have many games yet (Incredible Hulk, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, Beautiful Katamari, and Fable–plus TMNT on Live Arcade), but feel free to look me up and join my Avengers or something. It’s Eratosthenes83, because I was tired and my favorite obscure Greek mathematician was on my mind for some reason.

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 TalkOrigins.org, 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.

Convention-a-go-go

So, James Randi’s speaking at UIUC tomorrow, and I’m-a heading down with some friends for an evening full to the brim of skepticism. It looks like I’ll be attempting a meet-up with the Action Skeptics crew and some other blogger-types, which ought to be almost as Amazing as that certain Meeting that’s too expensive for a poor grad student to attend.

Anyway, for those folks I haven’t met in meatspace, this is roughly what I’ll look like tomorrow evening, shirt, book, and all:
That's right, first edition.
Hopefully we’ll all be able to find each other. Personally, I can’t wait. And I hope Randi’s doing some signing after the speech.