Skepticism, Religion Archive

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, November 20, 2007

Iraq Death Toll - Rebuttal to a Chain E-mail

The other day, I got an e-mail titled, "Statistics on Military Deaths," claiming to put into perspective the deaths caused by the Iraq War. It examines total military fatalities since 1980, showing that there were actually higher fatalities in the 80's than there are now, during the war. Since the information came in an e-mail forward, I was skeptical right off the bat, and decided to research it a little. The total death statistic is accurate, however, it's misleading in a number of ways - ignoring the causes of deaths, and ignoring the total number of people in the military over that time span. So, for anyone who's gotten this chain e-mail, I'm posting the reply I wrote to clarify it.

Continue reading "Iraq Death Toll - Rebuttal to a Chain E-mail" »

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

AiG's Creation Museum Follow-Up

Ticket from Creation MuseumBack in May, I wrote an entry, Creation Museum/Creationist Rule of Thumb with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, to coincide with the opening of the new Creation Museum, operated by an organization known as Answers in Genesis (AiG). Since the "museum" hadn't opened yet, I couldn't very well criticize the museum itself, so I instead picked a page from AiG's website, The Second Law of Thermodynamics: Answers to Critics, and criticized it, instead. I also used that entry to introduce a rule of thumb of mine: Anytime somebody tries to use the Second Law of Thermodynamics to refute evolution, you should realize you're dealing with somebody who doesn't understand science or who is a flat-out liar. If you're actually trying to learn something, you should save yourself the time and quit paying any attention to them, as you can't really trust anything they have to say about science.

Anyway, now that the museum's been open for a few months, people have gone to visit it, and it turns out to be just as bad as everybody expected. Just recently, the sci-fi writer and blogger, John Scalzi, paid the museum a visit, and posted his review on his blog (if the term, "horseshit," offends you, you may not want to follow that link). It's a fairly good review, but the part that makes it the best one I've seen of the museum so far (and admittedly, I haven't really gone looking for them), is the flickr set of 101 photos from the museum. It's not just Scalzi's opinion - you can see for yourself the idiocy on display.

To give you a taste of the review, here are a couple excerpts:

Let me say this much: I have to admit admiration for the pure balls-out, high-octane creationism that’s on offer here. Not for the Creation Museum that mamby-pamby weak sauce known as “Intelligent Design,” which tries to slip God by as some random designer, who just sort of got the ball rolling by accident. Screw that, pal: The Creation Museum’s God is hands on! He made every one of those animals from the damn mud and he did it no earlier than 4004 BC, or thereabouts. It’s all there in the book, son, all you have to do is look...
But seriously, the ability to just come out and put on a placard that the Jurassic era is temporally contiguous with the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt — well, there’s a word for that, and that word is chutzpah. Because, look, that’s something you really have to sell if you want anyone to buy it. It’s one thing to say to people that God directly created the dinosaurs and that they lived in the Garden of Eden. It’s another thing to suggest they lived long enough to harass the Minoans, and do it with a straight face. It’s horseshit, pure and simple, but that’s not to suggest I can’t admire the hucksterism.

I suppose I should add one more excerpt, to make it clear that it's the stupidity of AiG he's criticizing, and not Christianity in general:

To be clear, the “horseshit” I’ve been speaking of is not Christianity, it’s creationism, which to my mind is a teleological quirk substantially unrelated to the grace one can achieve through Jesus Christ...There are lots of Christians who clearly don’t need to twist their brain like a pretzel to get around the idea that the universe is billions of years old and that we’ve evolved from earlier forms.

Anyway, I guess this entire entry was just a drawn out way to put a link to Scalzi's review. Go read it, and especially visit the flickr set, to see just how bad the Creation Museum really is.

Note - this entry was slightly modified from the original version, to include the third excerpt.

Friday, November 9, 2007

How to Spot an E-mail Hoax

Hoax Fairy PictureI've written about this a couple times before (actually, re-reading that second one, I still think it's pretty good and would recommend it to people who haven't read it, yet), and I've seen it written about in places far more popular than my website, but people still seem to be as gullible as ever.

I don't personally receive many hoax e-mails myself, anymore. I think I've sent enough people links to Snopes, that they've either started checking their e-mails themselves, or gotten so fed up with me that that they took me off their distribution lists. But, my wife still gets quite a few, and working at a spot where she's not allowed onto the Web to check, she'll forward the e-mails to me and ask me to check them for her.

Well, she sent me one the other day about a supposed Amber Alert, after having received quite a few from the same person. When it comes to missing children, it really seems so easy to just forward it on, and you almost feel bad being skeptical about it, but it still doesn't do anybody any good to forward on a hoax. Actually, I'd bet that if you're constantly getting fake Amber Alerts, you're not going to pay as much attention when a real one finally comes your way. The thing that really caught my eye about this one, was that it was completely missing a date, and most of the information (physical description, last location seen, etc) that you'd expect to see in such an alert. So, I was nearly positive it was a hoax before even looking it up, but I still checked just to be safe.

Well, that got me to thinking - it really is pretty easy to spot most e-mail hoaxes before you even try to verify them. So, I thought I'd post a quick list of the tip-offs I use to spot hoax e-mails.

  1. It's an e-mail Okay, that might sound a little sarcastic, but really - be skeptical of any information you get from an e-mail, especially one that's been forwarded. Much more often than not, they're hoaxes or lies.
  2. No date This is probably the biggest tip-off for anything supposedly coming from an official organization (virus warnings, amber alerts, product recalls, etc.), but applies to news and current events, as well. Even if the message might have been true originally, chain e-mails have a way of long outlasting their useful life, and may be describing something from 10 years ago or more.
  3. No references If a person on the street you'd never met before told you an outlandish story that they'd heard from their friend, who'd heard it from a friend, who'd heard it from a friend, would you believe them? So why would you believe it when it comes from an e-mail? Look for the original source of the story.
  4. Too good to be true Usually, when a story sounds too good to be true, it is.
  5. Politically related A lot of the time, people let their emotions get in the way of their good sense. If a story villifies someone's political enemies, they seem to shut off their critical thinking skills entirely (well, I guess a lot of people don't really have all that good of critical thinking skills to begin with, but that's a topic for another time).
  6. Religiously related These e-mails could go in the Too good to be true or Politically related categories, but I get so many of them that they deserve their own mention. Just because an e-mail has the word "God," don't give it a free pass. Treat it just as skeptically as you would any other e-mail.
  7. Send this email to everyone in your address book If an e-mail has a phrase like this near the end, you can almost be positive that it's a hoax.
  8. Factoids Any time an e-mail consists of a long list of trivia, you can be just about sure that most of those facts are wrong, or at the very least misleading. I've even got an article on my main website where I researched every single claim in one of those types of e-mails.
  9. It's an e-mail Yes, this bears repeating. Most chain e-mails floating around the Internet are hoaxes or lies - be very skeptical of any information you get via e-mail.

There still are some amazing true stories out there, and every once in a while I'll be surprised, when I go to Snopes (and don't forget - Snopes can be wrong, too) and learn that a story from an e-mail actually did happen. Still, with the ratio of junk to good, you're best off being skeptical of every e-mail until you've verified it.

More info: TruthOrFiction.com's "Signs of Common eRumors"

Monday, October 8, 2007

Debunking a Columbus Myth

Portrait of Columbus from the painting,  Virgen de los Navegantes, by Alejo FernándezWell, today's Columbus Day, so I thought I'd write a little entry about it. (Actually, I'd planned on writing it a year ago for Columbus Day, but didn't get around to it in time.)

Here's what prompted me to write this - my family and I were talking, and my wife and daughter were rubbing it in how they both got Columbus Day off when I didn't. Well, me being the type of father I am, I asked my daughter what Columbus did that's so special that he's got a day named after him. She responded with the typical proving the world was round. Ugh. She was just repeating what her teacher had taught her, so she didn't do anything wrong, but how does this story continue to get taught?

I won't bother to give too much detail here - just go to the Wikipedia entry on Columbus, and read the Navigational Plans section. Basically, by Columbus's time, most people knew the world was round. Eratosthenes had even calculated the diameter to within a few percent 1700 years prior. The reason why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding, was because he believed the Earth was a whole lot smaller than most other people thought. He thought the Earth was around 15,700 miles in circumference, when in reality it's around 25,000 miles. Nobody knew about the Americas at the time. They figured that in theory, if you sailed west from Europe, you would eventually get to Asia, but that the trip would be so long, there'd be know way to take enough supplies on the ship to get you there. In fact, Columbus was lucky the Americas were there, or he wouldn't have had enough supplies.

added 2007-10-10 After reading through this entry again, I realized I forgot to mention something. The answer I was expecting my daughter to give was that Columbus discovered America. I was all prepared to tell her about the Vikings and others that made it to the Americas before Columbus, and the fact that Columbus never realized he'd discovered a new continent, even though it was his voyage that really did spark the major wave of European exploration of the new world. But for her to bring up the old myth of proving the world was round, it really took me by surprise.

More Info:
I have a new post mentioning Columbus's ruthlessness, not just his incompetence, Happy Exploration Day.

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