Skepticism, Religion Archive

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Texas State Board of Education Takes a Small Step Backwards on Science Education

TEA LogoAs described in the Austin American Statesman article, Texas education board approves curriculum that challenges evolution, the Texas State Board of Education has approved some troubling language for the state science standards.

If you want to see for yourself the full standards, you can find them here. Here are the four subject to the current controversy:

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

You can read a detailed discussion in a report put out by the Texas Freedom Network, Texas Science Curriculum Standards: Recommendations for Dealing with Pedagogical and Scientific Problems (pdf).


The Bad

Yes, the motivation behind these standards really is to promote creationism / cast doubt on evolution. Here are a few excerpts from that TFN report regarding the motivation behind three of these:

[Regarding 7 B] In a final appeal to preserve his proposal, McLeroy stated that the purpose of his standard was to argue against: "...the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor by the unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 7 G] During the board debate, McLeroy explained that this standard: "...questions the two key parts of the great claim of evolution, which is [sic] common ancestry by unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 9 D] During board debate, Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, explained that the new standard was "basically an origin of life amendment," referencing public testimony provided previously by Ide Trotter, a well-known promoter of intelligent design."

And the history of the first one, 3A, makes it clear that this was compromise language regarding the strengths and weaknesses gambit so popular among creationists.

Moreover, the Board had actually formed an expert committee to review the standards and make recommendations on improving them, and the committee recommended removing these four particular items because "they were vague, redundant or would require too much time to teach" (quoting the Stateseman article). So, the Board is going against the advice of experts to push standards that were originally motivated by anti-science positions.


The Good

The standards aren't actually that bad. All of them could be handled by textbook publishers and teachers strictly keeping to real science, and not injecting any creationism or other pseudoscience. Let's look at them again on a case by case basis.

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

Well, it says specifically 'all sides of scientific evidence'. Creationism is manifestly not science, so this shouldn't be a backdoor for creationism. As far as real science, this is a little overwhelming for a high school biology class. I mean, all sides of the scientific evidence supporting evolution in general could be an entire class unto itself. Even 150 years ago, in The Origin of Species, Darwin had an entire tome full of evidence for evolution, and the evidence has only grown stronger and more abundant since.

Granted, there are different 'sides' within current evolutionary biology - the relative influence of genetic drift vs. natural selection, how much of the genome is truly junk DNA vs. possible other functions, etc. So, teachers could delve into these current topics, but it seems a bit of a deep dive for high school biology.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

Well, if you're sticking to real science, this is simply a discussion of gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium, and perhaps some background on taphonomy and taphonomic biases in the fossil record. And that's all a decent discussion to have, showing students the evidence in support of both gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. In fact, there's evidence for both, so it's probably not an either/or discussion, but rather how they represent opposite extremes regarding the rates of speciation, and what might drive the different rates of change. Although like I said above, this is getting pretty in depth for a high school biology class.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

Well, yes, cells are complex. I remember learning about that back when I was in high school, and making a model stuffed full of organelles. And if you really want to get into the origins of the complexity, symbiogenesis is one of the topics to discuss in the origin of eukaryotes. And there's an entire field of study for abiogenesis, concerning how life first arose. But again, this might be more detailed than most people expect from high school biology.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

Lots of good stuff to discuss here, as well. I'm sure that teachers would at a minimum bring up the Miller-Urey experiment, as well as other more recent experiments that used different conditions thought to be more representative of the early earth. Teachers could start discussions on the RNA World. And of course, there's that whole field of abiogenesis that I already linked to. But like I said for each of the other questionable standards, and like the expert committee said, this is getting awfully detailed for a high school biology class that has to cover all the other standards and curriculum.

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So, it's troubling that these standards were motivated by creationist misunderstandings of science, and that the Board members went against the recommendations of experts regarding the standards. But at least the letter of the standards isn't horrible, and textbook publishers and teachers can stick to real science. I just hope teachers with creationist sympathies don't use these standards as an excuse to teach junk science.


Updated 2017-02-03: Made numerous small changes

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Responding to Dennis Prager's Two Questions for Atheists

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI came across this entry that I'd had ready to go for a while but forgot about. A few months ago, Dennis Prager wrote an article, Two questions for Atheists. The two questions were as follows:

  1. Do you hope you are right or wrong?
  2. Do you ever doubt your atheism?

I left a comment answering, but thought I would repost that answer here:

'Hope' is not the word I would use. At least the connotation I understand for that word is that there's a reasonable expectation that things we 'hope' for might actually happen, even if it's an outside chance. I hope to be financially stable throughout my adult life. I hope everyone in my family has good health. I hope the next plane I fly in doesn't crash. Conversely, I wouldn't say that I hoped that dragons were real, because I recognize that they're mythical and that my understading of the world would have to be severely flawed for dragons to exist. My understanding of the universe also implies, very strongly, that souls don't exist, and maybe slightly less strongly, that other spirits and divine powers don't exist, including gods. 'Hoping' to be wrong about that would be like 'hoping' to be wrong about dragons or unicorns.*

Now, I will admit to some small level of doubt regarding the supernatural, but it doesn't play into traditional Abrahamic religions. I'm thinking of deistic gods or spirits, that set the universe in motion and then remained hands off, or that actually came into being as part of the universe after the big bang. But even those are outside possibilities. I mean, the only intellects we now about were the result of countless eons of stellar and then biological development. It seems pretty odd to think that an intelligence would have come first and set everything else in motion, rather than vice versa. Everything we know of starts simple and builds to more complex. You don't get a 747 before there's even a junkyard for the tornado to blow through.

And many traditional religions just seem patently absurd. From an outsider's perspective, Yahweh seems no more credible than the old Greek and Roman gods, or the chimera gods of the ancient Egyptians. It's just hard to take those ideas seriously. I mean, there's a huge, gigantic universe on scales we can't truly comprehend, but the creator of it all takes a personal interest in whether or not I eat a bacon cheeseburger, wear clothes with mixed fibers, or style my hair a certain way?

I have further objections, but I think this is already long enough for a comment, so I'll leave it be here.

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*I suppose if you wanted to use a different definition of hope, more in line with wish, where plausibility wasn't part of it, then I do 'hope' that certain relgions aren't true, because of how bleak they are. Christianity is one of them. Here's an article related to that:
God vs. Supervillains

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Can You Achieve Immortality by Transferring Your Consciousness

Transferring ConsciousnessI recently came across a question on Quora, If you were dying, would you upload your consciousness and your memories into a 10-year-old clone of yourself? You see variations of this question quite a bit, including 'uploading' your consciousness to a computer. Here was the answer I wrote on Quora.

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No, I wouldn't attempt to transfer my mind into a clone.

There's a thought experiment called the Teletransportation paradox. Imagine a machine that can make a perfect atom-by-atom scan of your body, destroying your body in the process. It then sends the information from the scan at the speed of light to a receiver at some distant location, which builds an exact atom-by-atom copy. This new copy would have all the same memories and personality as the original. However, if the scanning machine were able to perform the scan without destroying your body, you would still be alive at the original location, while there would be a copy of you at the remote location. It becomes obvious that the copy isn't 'you', with a continuation of your consciousness. You have your own, original seat of consciousness, while the copy has its own, new seat of consciousness.

Even if I were able to manipulate the mind of a clone of myself (I'm assuming sci-fi clone, not genetic clone, since that would just be my twin), and I could give it all my memories and personality, I wouldn't be transferring my consciousness into that mind. I would only be manipulating that mind to believe that it was me. And sure, I like myself and think I'm a pretty good guy, but I don't have the arrogance to saddle another conscious entity with my personality and my thoughts.

Unless there's a miraculous medical breakthrough in the near future, I'm going to die some day. My consciousness will cease to be. Making a clone that believes it's me won't change that. It will be a new conscious entity, but my consciousness will still be gone.

Image Source: IFL Science!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Why Columbus Shouldn't Be Celebrated

Columbus the DevilToday is marked on the calendars as Columbus Day, but Christopher Columbus was a horrible excuse of a human being who doesn't deserve to be honored with a national holiday.

For starters, Columbus was a crank. Unlike the popular misconception, practically all educated people of Columbus's time, and probably even most non-educated people, knew that the earth was a globe. Nobody really thought that if you sailed west from Europe that you'd fall over the edge. What's more, they even had a good idea of the size. Eratosthenes had calculated it all the way back in ancient Greece some time around 200 BC to within 15%, and the educated people in Columbus's time made similar estimates that came close to the actual circumference. They all knew that in principle you could sail west from Europe to reach Asia, but that the distance was so long that none of the ships of the time could carry enough supplies to make the journey. Columbus, on the other hand, grossly underestimated the size of the Earth, coming up with a circumference around 1/2 of the actual circumference. That's a huge miscalculation, and why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding for his attempt. Going on the knowledge of the time, when nobody knew about North or South America, Columbus's proposal verged on a suicide mission.

And even after Columbus 'discovered*' the New World, he never realized it himself. He persisted in his crankery on the size of the Earth, and went to his death bed thinking he'd landed in Asia. It took other explorers and map makers to make it clear that this was a 'new' continent from the European perspective, previously unknown to them. That's why they're named the Americas, after Amerigo Vespucci, and not a name honoring Columbus.

And if his incompetence were enough to take away any of his imagined glory, his tyrannical rule as governor of the Indies should bring outright shame. Here's an article from the Guardian from a few years ago, Lost document reveals Columbus as tyrant of the Caribbean. He was cruel to both the native inhabitants and the European settlers. Here are a few excerpts from the article describing the cruelty of his government.

"Columbus' government was characterised by a form of tyranny," Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian who has seen the document, told journalists.

One man caught stealing corn had his nose and ears cut off, was placed in shackles and was then auctioned off as a slave. A woman who dared to suggest that Columbus was of lowly birth was punished by his brother Bartolomé, who had also travelled to the Caribbean. She was stripped naked and paraded around the colony on the back of a mule.

"Bartolomé ordered that her tongue be cut out," said Ms Varela. "Christopher congratulated him for defending the family."

When Francisco de Bobadilla arrived in the Indies to succeed Christopher Columbus as governor of the Indies, he had all three Columbus brothers shackled and sent back to Spain in chains for the crimes they'd committed. However, being good friends with the king, Columbus was pardoned once he arrived back in Spain.

Finally, there's the mixed legacy of European colonization of the Americas that was kicked off by Columbus's voyages. While it certainly worked out great in the long run for the Europeans, it was catastrophic for the peoples already living here. I don't necessarily mean to demonize the Europeans here, because their treatment of the American Indians, as horrible as it seems by modern day standards, wasn't out of the ordinary for the time. Plus, it's not like all the cultures in the Americas were altruistic paradises. They fought wars with each other. They made slaves of their enemies. Some, notably the Aztecs and the Mayans, practiced human sacrifice. In fact, the Aztecs were so disliked by their neighbors, that Cortes was able to make an alliance with Tlaxcala to help him conquer the Aztecs. Moreover, the biggest catastrophe that befell the American Indians was due to disease. And granted, these diseases came from Europeans, but it wasn't anything deliberate on the European's part. Still, the final outcome was that up to 95% of the original population died, marking perhaps the greatest tragedy in all of human history. That is not an event to be celebrated.

So, Christopher Columbus was a crank, who was extremely lucky that there were two unknown continents, or he may have starved at sea. He never even realized that he'd discovered new lands. Worse, once he had a taste of power, he became a cruel dictator, even by the standards of his time, and was hauled back to Spain in disgrace. And his discovery kicked off the European colonization of the Americas, which led to the deaths of countless American Indians and perhaps the greatest tragedy the world has known. There is nothing worth celelbrating in that legacy.

Related Entries / Articles:

Image Source: Wikipedia, with a bit of crude Photoshopping by me

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* From a the perspective of European culture, this was a discovery. Perhaps the Vikings did reach North America earlier, but that didn't become common knowledge throughout the rest of Europe. It really was Columbus landing in the Americas that set of the wave of European exploration and colonization - for better or worse.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

2016 Texas Republican Platform - Part 5, Environment / Climate Change

Republican ElephantThis entry is part of a series taking a look at the latest Texas Republican Party Platform. For a list of all entries in this series, go to the Introduction. Today, I'm going to look at their planks on climate change and environmentalism.

Climate change is arguably the most important issue facing the nation and the world. That's not to say other threats like terrorism aren't also big and deserving of attention, but they don't have the same catastrophic global effects.

Climate change is a threat globally, and a national security threat domestically, with the potential to cause huge amounts of upheaval, disruption, and suffering. And it's not some far off threat. Effects are already being noticed, with more severe weather patterns and natural disasters. Refusing to take action on climate change is both a moral failing and political dereliction of duty.

So, with such a huge issue, you'd expect it to play prominently in any serious political party. You'd expect it to be a major portion of their platform, explaining just how they expect to deal with such a monumental challenge. How do Texas Republicans deal with it? One freakin' paragraph, that doesn't even say how they would address the issue, but calls into question whether it's a real issue at all! Here's the plank, the one and only plank in the whole platform that mentioned climate change:

Protection from Extreme Environmentalists- We oppose environmentalism that obstructs legitimate business interests and private property use, including the regulatory taking of property by governmental agencies. We oppose the abuse of the Endangered Species Act to confiscate and limit the use of personal property and infringement on property owner's livelihood. "Climate Change" is a political agenda promoted to control every aspect of our lives. We support the defunding of "climate justice" initiatives and the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency and repeal of the Endangered Species Act. [emphasis mine]

That whole thing is bad, but take a look at that part in bold. This is deep into paranoid conspiracy theory territory. Climate change is real, and is a grave threat to society. To dismiss all the evidence in support of climate change and to call it a 'political agenda' is absurd.

The other parts are bad, but hardly surprising. The Republican Party in general just seem to have a problem with environmentalism, or any of the federal agencies that work to help preserve the environment (though of course, they couch it in language of private property and over-regulation).


I guess you could argue that even though the above plank was the only one that mentioned 'climate change', these next two do deal with the topic. But again, they're not encouraging. They're calls to inaction, without any proposal on how to address the issue:

Carbon Dioxide- We oppose all efforts to classify carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
Cap and Trade- We oppose the implementation of any cap and trade (aka "Cap and Tax") system through legislation or regulation.

And as I've written before, the Republican opposition to Cap and Trade is especially irritating because it was a Republican proposal to begin with - a free market method of addressing carbon emissions rather than overly restrictive government regulation.

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Honestly, there are lots of very, very bad sections of this whole platform, but this is the worst. Climate change is the type of existential threat that merits people becoming single issue voters. It's making nations uninhabitable, and could literally change the map. For a political party to actually call the reality of it into question and imply that it's nothing more than 'a political agenda' goes beyond mere irresponsibility. It's reprehensible, and should disqualify the Republican party in the minds of all thinking people.


More info: I've written several times about climate change before. Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy blog also has quite a bit. Here are links to several entries from Plait, followed by some of the ones I've written.

Climate Change Links on Bad Astronomy:

Climate Change Links on This Site:


Continue to Part 6, Civil Rights

 

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