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Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas! and a New Factoid Page

Christmas WreathMerry Christmas! And here's my Christmas present to the world - I've added a new factoid page, Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part II. I went through another of these trivia list e-mails, trying to determine the veracity of the claims. Once again, most of them were untrue.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Wright Brothers Day

Wright Brothers' First Flight, December 17, 1903
104 years ago today, the Wright brothers became the first humans to truly fulfill the dream of flight. Yes, the Montgolfier brothers had their hot air balloon, and others like Hiram Maxim may have gotten an airplane to momentarily lift off under its own power, and Otto Lilienthal had been experimenting with his weight shift gliders decades previously, but it was the Wright Brothers who were the first to really integrate the structures, aerodynamics, and control into the first successful airplane.

Flying has become so common place today that we take it for granted. People complain about the cramped seats, the long lines to get through security, the bad food (if you even get any) on flights. But just remember how long people have dreamt of flight, for how long people looked to the skies wanting to emulate the birds. Flying used to be the stuff of myth and legends, reserved for the gods. Now, we can all get in an airplane, and soar above the clouds. It really is something special.

Happy Wright Brothers Day.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Texas Education Agency - Chris Comer

I've been very late in blogging about this - the story broke a couple weeks ago. Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency resigned. There's still a fair amount of controversy surrounding this. Many are quick to jump to the conclusion, which is based on Comer's side of the story, that her resignation was forced because of her support for evolution. In particular, she forwarded on an e-mail announcing a talk by Barbara Forrest, author of "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse," and a key witness in the Dover trial, which prompted an e-mail from Lizzette Reynolds calling for her to be fired:

This is highly inappropriate. I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities. This is something that the State Board, the Governor's Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports.

Well, I would hope the agency supports sound science teaching, but this e-mail wasn't an official TEA statement, so I'll move on. It was very soon after this that Comer was forced to resign, and the memo recommending her termination included the FYI e-mail as one of its reasons. So, it seems that her support of science was a big reason for her forced recommendation, but the only reason I'm holding out is because of the list of other reasons given in that memo. Comer and others called those other reasons trumped up charges, which they might very well be, but call me naive, I just really want to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I'm not going to assume that the people at the TEA are that malicious.

So, I'll hold off judgement on why Comer was fired, but another statement from the memo does damn the school board:

Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.

Must remain neutral?! Looks like Reynolds' statement wasn't so far off from what the TEA board thought as a whole. But it's all ludicrous. Isn't the TEA's whole raison d'etre to provide quality education to students? How can remaining neutral on the issue of science vs. pseudoscience be fulfilling that mission? What if Comer had forwarded an e-mail about a lecturer addressing issues of holocaust deniers or HIV denialists - is the TEA to remain neutral on pseudohistory and pseudomedicine as well?

Given that the current chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, is a creationist (who doubts anthropogenic global climate change, to boot), and in the past has openly advocated Intelligent Design and old school creationism in the classroom (heck, you don't even need to look at his opponents - just go visit McLeroy's own site to see the type of craziness he believes in), and considering that school science standards are coming up for review in 2008, it makes Comer's resignation all the more fishy. I think everyone in this state needs to keep a close eye on how things play out in the coming months.

Much more information on this whole affair can be found at the website of the National Center for Science Education.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Commenting Change (Hopefully Temporary)

ScroogeI've been forced to become a Scrooge for the holidays. I've been getting huge amounts of spam comments recently, almost all of which have something to do with Christmas (gifts, wallpaper, ringtones, you name it). So, I've temporarily blocked comments containing that word. In the mean time, if you want to post a comment about the holiday, try to think of a clever way to say it without using that word. Hopefully, the spammers don't pay much attention to this blog, and won't come up with a new strategy avoiding using that word, but if they get clever, I may have to block other words dealing with the holidays.

The Golden Compass - Is It Really Atheistic, and Should That Affect You Watching the Movie?

Golden Compass Movie LogoWell, with The Golden Compass movie being released this week, I figured I'd make a little entry for it. I've already posted my review of the books (in short, I liked them, but didn't think they were great), so I won't cover that here. Instead, I'll cover a bit of the hoopla surrounding these books being atheistic, and a bit of the silly rationale I've seen from people trying to claim otherwise.


To be blunt, yes, the books are based on an atheistic worldview. I don't think this gives away too much of the plot, since it's revealed about midway through the second book, but in this story, God is not the creator of the universe, but instead the first conscious being to have developed. He's neither omnipotent nor omniscient. He's basically tricked much of the universe into thinking that he was the creator.

Now, I've seen in some reviews of the book, and in some blog comments, people who claim that the books aren't atheistic, because they're about a war on this character claiming to be God, but who wasn't really the Creator. I think those people are missing something - the character in this book that claims to be God, is (in the book) the same character that Christians worship. In other words, the books show a world where Yahweh is not a god. Now, I guess that strictly speaking, these books don't deny the possibility of some type of a god/gods, but there aren't any gods in these books, in the sense that most people would define a god, and the only character claiming to be a god, isn't.

But, just because the books are based on an atheistic worldview, does it mean that they promote atheism? If we accept what Pullman himself said in an interview, no.

As for the atheism, it doesn't matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I'm not promoting anything of that sort. What I do care about is whether people are cruel or whether they're kind, whether they act for democracy or for tyranny, whether they believe in open-minded enquiry or in shutting the freedom of thought and expression. Good things have been done in the name of religion, and so have bad things; and both good things and bad things have been done with no religion at all. What I care about is the good, wherever it comes from.

There's another way to look at it - the books are fantasy. I'm pretty sure that even Pullman doesn't believe in the universe he created, so it seems a bit silly to claim that he's trying to promote it. It would be like trying to claim that J.K. Rowling was promoting magic in her Harry Potter books (I realize a few people did claim this, but there are also still people who think the earth is flat - some people are just a few cards shy of a full deck). Pullman's universe is just a way to get people thinking about one of the main themes of the books, questioning authority and orthodoxy. What better way is there to illustrate that than to question the ultimate authority?

One other topic I wanted to touch on was the hypocrisy of the people denouncing The Golden Compass for indoctrinating children, but who had no problem with The Chronicles of Narnia. What's the difference? Perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to sling around the term, hypocrite - maybe some of those people do recognize Narnia as indoctrinating children into a Christian worldview, and wouldn't have any problems with people of other religions (or no religion) not letting their children read those books or see the movies based on them.

So, to get to the important question, should you let the atheistic worldview of The Golden Compass influence your decision to watch the movie, or to allow your children to watch the movie? Well, I guess if you're the type of person who avoided Clash of the Titans, because it promoted ancient Greek religion, and you didn't let your children watch it because you were afraid they might start worshipping Zeus, well then, The Golden Compass probably isn't for you. But, if you can enjoy it for what it is, and assuming that the movie adaptation turns out okay (and so far, according to IMDB, it appears to be doing pretty well), then it's probably a movie worth seeing.

Note: Wording in closing paragraph has been slightly modified from original posting, but nothing that changes the overall meaning.

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