Skepticism, Religion Archive

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Texas Science Standards Review Panel

TEA LogoOh boy, it looks like we're in for an ugly mess down here in Texas. For a bit of background - the current chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, is a creationist, who has openly advocated the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools (transcript & recording). Last year, Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign after forwarding an e-mail announcment of a lecture by Barbara Forrest critical of Intelligent Design. This past May, McLeroy pulled some shenanigans with a last minute cut and paste job of the English standards - having the BoE approve the new standards before anyone had sufficient time to review them, all after a three year process by teachers and experts to develop the new standards. At the end of that post, I wrote, "And don't forget that the science standards are the next in line to be reviewed. If the board can be so underhanded on a topic as uncontroversial as English, I fear just what stunts they're going to pull when it comes to subjects like biology and geology."

Now, the Board of Education has just named the six people who will be on the Texas Science Standards Review Panel:

  • David Hillis, professor of integrative biology and director of the Center of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at the University of Texas at Austin;
  • Ronald K. Wetherington, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence;
  • Gerald Skoog, professor and dean emeritus of the College of Education at Texas Tech and co-director of the Center for Integration of Science Education and Research;
  • Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture from Washington state;
  • Ralph Seelke, an ID proponent and biology professor at the University of Wiconsin, Superior;
  • Charles Garner, an ID proponent and chemistry professor from Baylor.

The first three of those members are the type of people you'd expect on a science standards review panel. But the last three are certainly worrying, especially given the past actions of the BoE. For anyone unfamiliar with the Discovery Institute, it is nominally* a conservative think tank, whose main purpose seems to be promotion of Intelligent Design and attempts to discredit evolution. Meyer, Seelke, and Garner, have all signed the Discovery Institute's "Dissent from Darwinism" statement. For an idea of how relevant that list actually is, consider Project Steve. Meyer and Seelke are even co-athors of the book,
Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism. For a good review of the Discovery Institute and this book, take a look at the review on ars technica. The conclusion, although a little less than polite, sums up the book pretty nicely:

But the book doesn't only promote stupidity, it demands it. In every way except its use of the actual term, this is a creationist book, but its authors are expecting that legislators and the courts will be too stupid to notice that, or to remember that the Supreme Court has declared teaching creationism an unconstitutional imposition of religion. As laws similar to Louisiana's resurface in other states next year, we can only hope that legislators choose not to live down to the low expectations of EE's authors.

I'd hope I wouldn't have to mention that evolution is in fact true, and that it's well supported by evidence and the scientific community, but unfortunately, with the state of things right now, I think I do have to say that. For a discussion of some of that evidence, take a look at a previous blog entry of mine, A (Somewhat) Brief Introduction to Evolution.

While the current mantra of ID proponents seems to be to teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, you have to question their motives when they say that. On the face of it, it doesn't sound too bad. Science is not a dogmatic acceptance of the teachings of your mentors - it's all about questioning the world around you and looking for evidence. Questioning the weaknesses of a theory is where you find the interesting discoveries. However, creationists tend to single out evolution with this approach. Currently, our understanding of gravity is a whole lot worse than our understanding of evolution, but you don't hear an outcry for schools to teach Intelligent Falling, or to point out the strengths and weaknesses of that theory. You also have to question just what will be taught, considering what creationists suppose are weaknesses of evolutionary theory. When you still have people asking 'what use is half an eye?', you can just imagine what they'd want the science curriculum to be. I'm not saying the review panel is that ignorant, but consider that it will be up to individual teachers to present these weaknesses.

Anyway, if you live in Texas, or if you just promote reality based education, there are several resources for this issue:


*I use the word nominally here, because it's more of a propaganda institute than anything else.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Website Update - Updated Religious Essays Section

I've updated the Religious Essays section of this site. Previously, the essays were available only as .pdf files. I figured that that might discourage some people from reading them. So, I've made the individual essays all available as regular HTML files. Hopefully, this will make them more accessible to people who don't want to download .pdf files. I did keep the .pdf file that's a collection of all the essays, but I changed the page layout slightly. I converted it to a 5.5"x8.5" sheet. That's half the size of a regular letter size paper, which works out just right for using a duplexer to print 4 pages per sheet of paper, and folding all the sheets in half to make a little booklet out of it (and yes, I realize I'm probably the only person that's ever going to do that). I also added two new essays, which are adaptations of blog entries I wrote recently, Further Musings on the Soul and Pascal's Wager, as well as expanding the essay, Problems with a Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis, using some information I wrote for a comment on a blog entry.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Why Do People Have a Problem With Our Relation to Other Apes?

For some reason, one of people's biggest problems with evolution seems to be that us and the other great apes all came from the same ancestors. One of the first objections I hear from creationists is if I actually believe that we evolved from apes. And honestly, it never seemed like a big deal to me*. Here, take a look at these pictures of a bonobo and a human:

Continue reading "Why Do People Have a Problem With Our Relation to Other Apes?" »

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pascal's Wager

A discussion of Pascal's Wager seems nearly obligatory for a blog that deals with skeptical themes. So, even though others have already covered this more eloquently than I could hope for, here's my take on this argument.

Coin TossIf you're the type that gets involved at all in religious discussions (and maybe even if you aren't), you've probably heard some version of Pascal's Wager before, even if you haven't heard it referred to as such. The argument is named for Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French philosopher. It appeared in The Pensées, a post-humous publication of a collection of Pascal's notes. However, the argument is simple enough that many people have no doubt come up with it independently. So, rather than discuss Pascal's original description of the "wager," I'll discuss the version that I've heard most often, personally. (And, in defense of Pascal, I'ver heard that he never intended this argument to be concrete logical proof, but rather as a way to get people thinking about the issue).

The argument goes something like this. There either is a God, or there isn't. You either believe in God, or you don't. That gives four possible outcomes (these are usually shown in a table, but I'm just going to list them):

  1. God exists & you believe - You'll get into heaven when you die, an infinite reward.
  2. God exists & you don't believe - You'll go to hell when you die, an infinite punishment.
  3. God doesn't exist & you believe - You'll lose nothing (or, according to some, even live a better life).
  4. God doesn't exist & you don't believe - You can do whatever you want during life, a finite reward.

Presented this way, belief in God would seem to be the logical choice. However, there are definitely problems with the argument.

The first problem I'll note is the one that first occured to me when I was still a Christian - people cannot simply choose to believe in something. Take for example, leprechauns. Many people have sincerely believed in them in the past, but no matter how much I may want to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, I can't make myself believe that leprechauns actually exist. It's the same way with God. If you've given serious thought to the issue, you can't simply make yourself believe (or disbelieve) just because you'd like the outcome. To claim belief in that way would be insincere, and, according to most people's concept of Yahweh, God doesn't merely want lip service. He wants actual, sincere faith.

The second problem I see with the argument is the assumption that you'll lose nothing if you believe in God but he doesn't exist. Assuming you accept that the Bible accurately represents what Yahweh wants of us (which most Christians do), there are plenty of rules in that book. Granted, many Christians have found ways to rationalize their way out of following a good deal of them (no more dietary regulations, people can work on the Sabbath, many seem to disregard Jesus's lecture about rich people and heaven being compared to camels getting through the eye of a needle, etc.), but there are still quite a few Biblical rules that people do follow. Probably two of the most relevant right now are attitudes toward homosexuals, and attitudes toward stem cell research. The former keeps a large number of people from leading happy lives, while the latter is preventing research with the potential to greatly reduce suffering in the world. One could argue that these are finite costs, compared to the infinite cost and reward of heaven and hell, but they are still costs, nonetheless.

However, the biggest problem with Pascal's wager must be that it leaves out many other possibities. This becomes clear if you imagine the argument with Allah instead of the Christian God. The argument would then seem to indicate that you should be a Muslim. Obviously, they can't both be right. The problem is in that first statement, that either God exists or he doesn't. It's not a simple either/or choice. There are many, many gods to choose from - three versions of Yahweh (Jewish, Christian, & Muslim - not to mention all the sects of those three), Vishnu, the Bahá'í God, Krishna, the Sikh God, Ahura Mazda, Anu, Ra, Odin, Quetzalcoatl, Gukumatz, or Zeus, to name just a few of the deities people have worshipped in the past, or continue to worship in the present (and as an aside, there are many traditions, like Buddhism which don't concentrate on deities).

Also left out are the possibilities of how a god will reward or punish belief and disbelief. The Christian conception of God will reward faith and punish doubt, but with all the possibilities of gods, the other deities may have different ideas. It's conceivable that a god would reward honest inquiry, and punish blind faith, favoring the process over the end result.

Even though Pascal's wager may appear clever at first blush, it's unlikely to convince people who have given much thought to the question of the existence of a deity.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Another Ray Comfort Tract

Going into the grocery store this past Friday, a lady standing by the door handed me this (click for higher res):

Million Dollar Bill Tract

This is similar to the tract I blogged about before, which I found in some Harry Potter and Golden Compass books (on another occasion, I found a tract in The God Delusion), but apparently, it's a newer, "better" version.

I was half tempted to start a discussion with the lady, but I was in a hurry to pick up a few things and then get home for my daughter's birthday party. Obviously, my daughter takes precedence over street corner debates, so I just chuckled to myself, put the tract in my pocket, and contented myself with knowing I'd be able to blog about it. There's not really much to say about the tract itself, though. It's pretty much the same old thing that's come from Comfort's organization before.

This incident did get me thinking, though. There needs to be some type of quick, easy handout to give to these people, as a kind of reciprocal gift to the tracts they're handing out. I found this, but that's a full brochure. It's not the type of thing I'd carry around in my back pocket, just in case I run into that pushy evangelical. There needs to be something business card sized, short and clear to get them thinking, without being obnoxious or mocking.

As an aside, I'd always given Ray Comfort the benefit of the doubt, assuming he was sincere, but just ignorant of science (and a few other things). I just found an entry on another blog that isn't quite so charitable.

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