Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Virginia's New Strenghts & Weaknesses Bill

Evolutionary TreeThere's a recent article at the Daily Beast, Creationism's Latest Trojan Horse Edges Toward Virginia Schools by Karl Giberson. The tagline is as follows.

After years on the defensive, opponents of evolution and climate change are learning that subtle language may be the ticket to sabotaging science education in public schools.

The article is very good, and this entry would be worth doing if only to alert readers to that article and urge them to read it. It contains one of the best short summaries I've seen of the creationism movement in this country. Aside from the excellent the history, Giberson described the current issue in Virginia, where the state legislature is attempting a tactic that's become familiar to those of us who follow the evolution/creation confrontation:

America's whack-a-mole debate about evolution in the public schools has reappeared in Virginia, where state assembly has proposed legislation to modify curriculum to include study of the "scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories." If the anti-evolutionists get their way, Virginia elementary and secondary schools will have to develop new curricula that explores the weaknesses of evolution, a strategy intended to make room for alternative theories of origins.

I've written about this strengths and limitations tactic before concerning Texas. While it sounds noble in theory, in practice it's used in an attempt to smuggle creationist nonsense into the classroom.

So, at this point, I could be done with this entry. But I've gone and caught another case of SIWOTI syndrome. Reading through the comments to the article (yes, I know I shouldn't do that), I came across one that I wanted to reply to. But for some reason, the comment won't go through. So, to get it off my chest, I'm going to post the comment here.

Here's the portion of the comment that motivated me to respond.

Mr. Giberson's historical (and biased) rendering of the Creationist/ID movement did nothing to support his assertion that adding a module or two on the weaknesses of evolution would somehow lead to teaching creationism is the classroom.

My intended response is as follows.

This conversation is full of examples of why the people who support science are worried about language like this. You yourself pulled out the old canard of, "And yes, it is only a theory." Someone else brought up the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Someone else used a God of the Gaps argument ("I also think teaching about a potential intelligent designer as possible future theories of things we don't have answers too, or even things we do, are as plausible.") Another person tried to connect evolutionary with the origin of the entire universe ("The bottom line is that the Theory of evolution says everything came to being because of an explosion.") Someone else would call into question all non-laboratory science ("Because it is incapable of being reproduced and tested in a laboratory setting because the time frames involved are beyond human ability to observe."), as if astronomy wasn't a science because you can't put stars in the lab. Someone else brought up a (rather silly) argument from consequences ("Based upon this logic the holocaust was acceptable because there were laws which supported it."), and another person brought in the related is/ought fallacy ("Why do you keep shoving the theory that our children are from apes and then you wonder why they act like one.") These are the reasons why the science proponents are worried, that bogus 'weaknesses' like these will be taught to students, not legitimate scientific debates.

And while the Virginia bill doesn't specifically call out any particular area of science, when similar language has been proposed in other states, it has. For example, Tennessee's Senate Bill 893 included the phrase, "including evolution, global warming, the chemical origin of life, and human cloning," and Oklahoma's HB 1551 included the wording, "analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." These bills aren't about open inquiry, urging students to question everything. They're calling out a few specific fields of science that some groups don't like. Nobody would be so naive as to think Virginia is operating in a vacuum, and that the politicians introducing this bill haven't been influenced by the politicians introducing similar bills in other states.

For a bit of extra info, here are a few links. The first is more information on the legislation for states outside Virginia. The second is an index of handy explanations of the flaws in many standard creationist claims. The third is an entry I did a few years ago concerning the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Hopefully, voices of reason will prevail in Virginia, and this backhanded attempt at indoctrinating children into creationism will fail.

Updated 2014-01-30: Updated a typo - it's the Daily Beast, not the Daily Best.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Climate Change - Arctic Sea Ice Extent

Global WarmingI recently had a conversation with an acquaintance regarding climate change. He was a denialist, and one of his arguments, while a familiar tactic, was a new one to me on the specifics - that 2013 had seen a dramatic increase in Arctic sea ice extent, indicating that the global warming trend had reversed. After doing a bit of Googling, I found similar claims in some of the standard denialist sources. For example, a recent article in The Telegraph by Hayley Dixon carried the headline, Global warming? No, actually we're cooling, claim scientists. The synopsis right under the headline read:

A cold Arctic summer has led to a record increase in the ice cap, leading experts to predict a period of global cooling.

The opening two paragraphs of the actual article are quoted below.

There has been a 29 per cent increase in the amount of ocean covered with ice compared to this time last year, the equivalent of 533,000 square miles.

In a rebound from 2012's record low, an unbroken ice sheet more than half the size of Europe already stretches from the Canadian islands to Russia's northern shores, days before the annual re-freeze is even set to begin.

To be charitable, the numbers being claimed seem to be relatively accurate. The problem lies in the interpretation.

My first reaction to hearing the claim from my acquaintance was to go looking for the data to see for myself what was going on. I found a good source for sea ice data, National Snow & Ice Data Center. After clicking through a few links, I found this data set in particular, Sea Ice Index (direct ftp link). It provided monthly mean extent and area data, so I downloaded that, put it into Excel, and plotted it. Below is the result of that work, a graph showing monthly averages by year.

Sea Ice Extent

Plotting it out like that really shows the misleading nature of the claim that arctic sea ice has recovered. There's a clear long term trend of decreasing ice extent. 2012 was an abnormally low year, and 2013 was an abnormally high year, but neither year was far off from that trend.

Here's another way of plotting the data. This is a simplistic average, summing the monthly averages and dividing by 12, but still shows the general trend.

Sea Ice Extent

Another way this is misleading is by expressing it as a percentage. Because of the long term trend, the minimums are getting lower and lower. The lower the minimums are, the higher percentage increase you'll get from any increase. A few years from now, if one year is only 1 million kmĀ², and the next was 2 million, I'm sure the denialists would shout that it was a 100% increase. Once we have an ice free summer, any amount of ice the next summer would be an infinite improvement percentage wise, but not much solace if the absolute coverage was still low.

In the course of my googling this, I came across a good article on SkepticalScience dealing with the claim in more depth than I have here, Arctic sea ice "recovers" to its 6th-lowest extent in millennia. I highly recommend you go read the entire article, but I couldn't resist stealing one of their animated images, illustrating how denialists view sea ice decline. Sea Ice Graph

If you want to see another example of the denialist propaganda, here's an article from the Mail Online, And now it's global COOLING! Return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 29% in a year. It contains similar claims to the Telegraph article quoted above.

It amazes me that intelligent, well educated individuals can fall for these types of propaganda, but the sad truth is that our world is warming, and we're already starting to face some of the effects of that change. Unless we do something about it soon, the future for us and our children will be much more painful and expensive than it needed to be.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

When Happy Holidays Isn't Good Enough

ScroogeI've written about the Salvation Army before, in the appropriately named entry, The Salvation Army - To Give, or Not to Give?. Now, I have reservations about that organization, and I've personally decided to donate to other, more deserving groups, but as I wrote in that entry, "I do think the Salvation Army does much more good than harm. So, if the only way you would donate would be to drop your change into one of their kettles, then don't hold back! Most of your money will go to helping people, and it's better than doing nothing at all." I certainly wouldn't advocate hostility towards the group, but here's an example of a Christian who was none too happy with one of the bell ringers, Salvation Army bell ringer says 'Happy Holidays' led to assault. Yes, you read the headline correctly. The bell ringer was wishing people 'happy holidays', and was assaulted because of it. Here's how she put it.

"The lady looked at me," said Vindiola. "I thought she was going to put money in the kettle. She came up to me and said, 'Do you believe in God?' And she says, 'You're supposed to say Merry Christmas,' and that's when she hit me."

How petty and small minded can you get? Here's a person volunteering their own time to collect money for a Christian organization helping the poor, and another person is angered to the point of violence over their choice of wording in well wishing? It's absurd. And it's not even like saying 'happy holidays' is always (or even usually) a deliberate downplay of Christmas. I remember when it used to be the standard greeting on Christmas cards in lieu of wishing 'Merry Christmas and a happy New Year' simply because it was shorter. Or do these people hate New Year's so much that only Christmas should be mentioned in holiday greetings?

Granted, some people do say 'happy holidays' deliberately to avoid only Christmas wishes, because there are other holidays that people celebrate around this time of year. But that's meant to be more inclusive to those other people, not as some sort of hostility towards Christians. What type of person does it take to get upset at somebody extending good will towards a larger group of people?

It's kind of ugly, but here's a good chart I came across showing the proper response to different holiday greetings depending on the particular affiliation of the people involved.

Holiday wishes flow chart

If you can't read it, the appropriate response in every case is:

"Thank you! You too!"

...because honestly, if you can't see past the words of the wish to its good intent, then it's not the holiday well-wisher who's broken, it's you.

So, happy holidays to everyone out there who's celebrating some sort of holiday right around now. And if you're not celebrating anything, then just have a nice day.

Image Source: Imgur

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

God vs. Supervillains

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've written along these lines before, but here's a slightly different version that's been rattling around in my head.

Imagine a supervillain bent on taking over the world, building a secret society of supporters to help him achieve his ends. He's very charismatic and likeable in person, and very generous in rewarding his supporters. But he's absolutely brutal with his enemies. Once he gets his hands on them, he'll torture them mercilessly, putting them through unimaginable pain, using methods that keep them alive and prolong the pain as long as possible. He's trying to build up his base of supporters as large as he can, so one of the tasks of existing supporters is to find new people to join their secret society. And of course, they focus on the rewards part, but once the potential converts learn of the society, there's also the threat of torture. In a sense, it's kind of like the mob - as long as you're not involved at all, you can steer clear of the whole thing. But once you get caught up in it personally, you have to either go along with them, or face some type of punishment. But unlike the mob, this is a megalomaniacal supervillain, so if he gets his way, eventually there will be no possibility of avoiding his influence. Once he gets enough supporters, he'll be ruler of the whole world, and then he'll be able to put all his resources to bear on finding and torturing his enemies.

Now in real life, this would be a difficult situation to deal with. On the one hand, you'd like to imagine yourself being a hero, and standing up against the villain. But on the other hand, as long as he's not punishing you, you may just keep your head down and do the minimum he asks of you. Just look at the drug cartels in Mexico right now. If a cartel demanded use of your house for a drug smuggling operation, would you stand up to them and face being tortured and killed, or would you just go along, knowing you were cooperating with an evil force, but saving your own hide, and probably your family's as well. And when you throw in the bribes and rewards, it gets even more tempting.

Now, instead of a supervillain bent on taking over the world, imagine a god already in control of the universe, who merely keeps his presence a bit of a secret on this world in an effort to find his most faithful supporters. Otherwise, the situation's mostly the same. Suck up to him and do as he wishes and you'll be rewarded. Oppose him and you'll be punished. Only unlike the mortal supervillain, this god has the ability to make the punishment last for eternity.

Now, I know that most Christians believe God is good, and the source of love and morality and all that. But look at the methods. They're not the methods of heroes, but rather of supervillains. Eternal torture as the punishment for any finite action, and particularly for not giving blind obedience, is evil. I'm just glad that God isn't real, or I'd be faced with the decision of going along with it all to save my own hide, or opposing it but damning myself to eternal torment. Imagining the God of the Bible to be real is a pretty bleak scenario.

I know, I know. Not all Christians believe God is like this. Even if the vast majority of Christians believe accepting Christ is one of the requirements of avoiding Hell, more liberal Christians believe that God will reward good people and only punish bad people, and the more liberal yet don't believe in eternal punishment, or don't even believe in a literal Hell. If God were like those more liberal Christians imagined, then it wouldn't be such a bleak scenario. But that's not the God of the Bible, nor the God believed in by the majority of Americans. I'm still in the Old Testament in my task of re-reading the entire Bible, but the God presented there is not particularly lenient. He demands obedience, and punishes people harshly if they fail to give it to him.

Edited 2015-04-22 to fix some typos in the post script.

Monday, December 9, 2013

War on Christmas 2013

Santa in the CrosshairsChristmas is only two weeks away, so it's time to ramp up my efforts in the War on Christmas. To tell the truth, the whole idea of the war is a bit silly, considering all the ways Christmas has been dealt with in this country's past, from the Puritans outlawing it, to some cities treating it "like a nightmarish cross between Halloween and a particularly violent, rowdy Mardi Gras" (see first link below). I've written a few blog entries on Christmas over the years, so I'll just provide links to those below. The first three are especially good for actually being informative.

My previous War on Christmas posts:

But I really do like Christmas. We've already put up the tree, decorated the front yard, and gotten most of the decorations up in the house, and we'll visit with family, excange presents, and celebrate on Christmas Day. We do pretty much all the normal traditions other than go to church. So, ignoring the 'war', here are a couple more Christmas posts.

My positive Christmas posts:

And as has become my annual tradition for this site, here is Tim Minchin singing his secular Christmas carol, White Wine In the Sun. And just in case you missed the link above, if you buy the song from iTunes this month, the proceeds will go to the National Autistic Society.

Related Links to Other Sites (the first is serious, the rest are humorous):


Selling Out