Skepticism, Religion Archive

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Shenanigans in the Texas State Board of Education

TEA LogoThis is a story that's already made its way around the skeptical neighborhoods of the blogosphere, but it definitely bears repeating for anybody that hasn't heard it yet. Last Friday, the Texas State Board of Education approved the new English Language Arts and Reading curriculum standards.

According to the news release put out by the Texas Education Agency,

A less repetitive, more grade-level specific set of English Language Arts and Reading curriculum standards will go into use in Texas classrooms in the fall of 2009 after having been approved by the State Board of Education May 23 on a 9-6 vote.

The process of revising the 1997 standards began in 2005. Hundreds of teachers, numerous experts, national facilitators, and State Board of Education members worked on many drafts of the document over that time.

The standards ultimately approved by the board represent a blending of a document crafted by teacher work groups, with the help of facilitators from StandardsWork, and a version drafted by a coalition of English teachers. Many of the same teachers worked on both documents.

That release also states

Other board expressed strong concerns about being asked to approve a draft document that emerged on the final day of deliberations. Consequently, the board agreed to go through the document page by page, spending several hours looking at the latest revisions.

After working two and a half years on curriculum standards, I can imagine that board members would have "strong concerns" over a document that they'd had less than a day to review. There's an article in the Dallas Morning News that lists more details of how that document was released:

"I find it's really wild that we can work for three years on a project and then the board is so qualified they can pull it out of their hat overnight," said board member Pat Hardy, a Fort Worth Republican who, like other board members, received the substituted document when it was slipped under her hotel door less than an hour before their meeting was set to convene Friday morning.

The article also discusses how the "seveal hours" were spent reviewing the new document.

After first saying he would not give board members time to go over the new document during the meeting, Chairman Don McLeroy, a Republican from College Station, eventually relented, allowing a quick run through of the new document with an explanation of the changes.

But the squabbling did not end there.

"Mr. Chair you're going so fast ... you're moving so fast we can't find it in the other document," Berlanga said, shortly after the page-by-page explanation began.

After more complaints, McLeroy declared that he would continue at the fast pace.

"The ruling is you're being dilatory in dragging this out," McLeroy said.

The Houston Chronicle also has an article on what happened, with an opening paragraph that sums up the situation quite nicely.

A three-year effort to rewrite English language arts and reading standards for the state's public schools came down to a last minute cut-and-paste job Friday.

The way the Board of Education handled this was completely improper. Don McLeroy, the head of the Board of Education (who also happens to be a creationist, and a dentist, with virtually no qualifications for heading that board) should resign, and if he doesn't do so voluntarily, should be removed by the governor.

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.

The best write up I've seen of this in the blogosphere comes from Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy Blog

Friday, May 16, 2008

Global Warming - It's Real, And We're Causing It

Global WarmingI was with a group of people yesterday, and one of them brought up the recent news of the U.S. listing polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, due to their expected decline as global warming melts the arctic sea ice they depend upon for survival. And of course, this got the conversation going on global warming. Out of the six of us, one guy thought that scientists just didn't know what the hell was going on with the climate, that there wasn't any real consensus on global warming at all, and that even if global warming were real, which he doubted, polar bears would find a way to survive, anyway. Another guy seemed more open to the idea that global warming could be happening, and could be human caused, but wasn't entirely convinced. I tried my best to defend the science, while the other three people stayed pretty quiet on the subject (although from a previous conversation, I think that one of them at least accepts that global warming is happening). Later on, when I told another guy about this conversation, he seemed to think that the current global warming might just be a natual cycle, and that it's not human caused. So, out of 7 people, I was the only one to strongly accept that current global warming is human caused.

Now, I'll admit I'm no expert on global climate. Not only am I not involved with the field at all, but I haven't really studied it in depth on a lay level, either, like I have other fields such as evolution. So, I guess I need to ask myself, how can I go on accepting that humans are causing global warming, and that it is a major problem?

First, I'll defer to the experts. I realize this isn't exactly a sound logical approach - after all, evidence is evidence no matter who discovers it. But, in the same way that I'll take my doctor's advice on what effects different medicines and procedures have, I'll put a fair amount of weight on the statements of the people who devote their careers to studying climate.

Continue reading "Global Warming - It's Real, And We're Causing It" »

Friday, April 25, 2008

Further Musings on the Soul

I have an essay on my main website (actually, a copy of an e-mail exchange between me and some friends), in which I argue for the existence of a soul. At the time, I'd given it a lot of thought, but hadn't done much actual research. My basic argument was that we're not just automatons - we experience things. Since "experience" isn't a property of matter, our experience must come from something immaterial - a soul.

Well, I've done a little more research into these things since I wrote that. Unsurprisingly, I've discovered that other people have already thought along these lines (that's one of the humbling things I've learned from the Internet - no matter how deep or profound of an idea I think I've come up with, it's almost inevitably been written about by someone else before me, sometimes thousands of years ago). What I was calling "experience" is more formally known as "qualia," and there's a whole Philosophy of Mind dealing with this issue.

One of my original assumptions was that experience couldn't be a property of plain matter. One could arm chair philosophize about this all they wanted, but that gets you nowhere. The best thing to do is to look for evidence that may or may not support this. Unfortunately, given the subjective nature of experience, it's a very difficult topic to find data on. However, since this is a discussion on souls, and the classical understanding of souls is that they are our true identity, and would influence our personalities, we could instead look for evidence dealing with what controls our personality. A very informative website, Ebon Musings, has an essay titled Ghost in the Machine dealing with this very issue. It lists a good deal of evidence explaining how our actions and emotions are controlled by our brains, and how physical changes to the brain can affect us. One of the examples he discusses, and probably the most famous in these types of discussions, is a man by the name of Phineas Gage. Gage was a foreman in charge of blasting for the railroad. In 1848, he was involved in an accident, where an explosion sent a tamping iron through his head, destroying a part of his brain in the process. He survived the incident, but had a completely different personality afterwards.

The fact that it is our physical brains that control our personality is not definitive proof against a soul. It's still possible that to experience qualia, we need an immaterial soul. However, with that line of reasoning, the function of the soul is greatly reduced. It's basically just an observer, along for the ride. And if that were true, what exactly would existence be like after death? Would a soul retain memories? Would it even have a personality?

I don't want to admit it, because the emotional side of me still really wants to reunite with dead loved ones, and to be able to still watch over my daughter after I die, but it really does seem most likely that we don't have souls, that our physical brains really are the true centers of what we would consider "self."

This raises some interesting questions. Where exactly does this awareness come from? Is there any way to know what else has this awareness? Barring solipsism, we can be pretty sure that other humans experience qualia, because we can easily communicate with them. Other animals, too, seem to share this trait. If this awareness is an emergent property of matter, and we know that it occurs in our brains, it seems only natural to assume that it would occur in the brains of other animals. But, are brains the only complex structures that can produce this property? The less we can interact with something, the less we can tell what it might be experiencing. Do plants experience emotions, but we have no way of telling because they can't talk to us? What about the sun? It appears to have some pretty complex reactions going on inside it. Could those reactions be generating some type of experience? Does it even take complexity? Could a rock have a very limited sense of awareness, but with no sensory organs, and no way to communicate with us, we just wouldn't have a way to tell?

And with as specialized as regions of our brains seem to be, how does our consciousness get manifested in a coherent way, incorporating all the thoughts and inputs from different brain regions? Is our consciousness really that coherent, or could it even possibly be that the region of the brain that incorporates input from all other parts is the true center of our "self," and that the other regions of our brain might even have their own sense of awareness? Or, not trying to sound too pantheistic, could this awareness not require actual physical contact (because in reality, no two atoms are ever truly touching, anyway), and be some type of heirarchical phenomenon? Could ant colonies be "super consciousnesses," or could there even be a super consciousness for the entire universe? That last concept seems a bit too outlandish and I really do doubt it, and even common sense would seem to indicate that it's absurd, but knowing how bad of a guide common sense is to the mysteries of the universe (such as quantum mechanics), this still remains an intriguing remote possibility.

In the end, even if we don't have souls, this universe of ours truly is a wondrous place. I'm glad, however it comes about, that I get to experience it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Run of the Mill vs. Big Name Creationists

The Flintstones - not a documentaryI previously covered this very briefly in a previous blog entry, but I wanted to give it its own entry. The topic I wanted to cover is the difference between your run of the mill creationist and a big name creationist, and why the big name creationists piss me off so much.

Continue reading "Run of the Mill vs. Big Name Creationists" »

Friday, April 18, 2008

Another Creation Museum Review

Dr. Chip Noodle Riding a Triceratops
I've written about the Creation Museum a few times before. Well, one of my friends recently took a trip to Cincinatti, and he and his girlfriend thought it would be good for a laugh to kill an afternoon at the "museum." He's posted his review. While he thought the whole thing was pretty humorous, he did have this to say:

Overall, it was fun, but still left me sad with life. Aside from the religously-attired and the mullet-equipped individuals, there were families there, reading the museum's claims to their children as if it were fact. I hope these kids don't want to be scientists when they grow up, because they're off to one hell of a bad start before they even get into public school.

Very true. I feel bad for the kids that get indoctrinated into believing this stuff.


Selling Out