Archive for the 'education' Category
public school & religious cultural center field trip

My partner sent me this article about the furor over a public school field trip to a local Muslim community center.

Folks seem to be upset because a few kids participated in religious observances / prayer. Personally I’m not too bothered by that — it appears to be voluntary participation at the event, and likely the field trip itself was voluntary. Prayers should not be sponsored by the school, but kids are free at school to engage in non-sponsored religious rituals should they choose; so why not on a field trip?

But what I am bothered by is the below paragraph, which doesn’t seem to have excited much controversy:

The 10-minute video, which weaves the words of a narrator and video of activities at the center, says that during the field trip, girls and women were instructed to stay at the back of the room during the prayer service — as per Muslim custom — and the boys were allowed to stand side by side with mosque members during prayers.

Letting kids see folks at religious observances, and learn about said religion, is one thing. Encouraging them, or requiring them, to participate in sex discrimination is quite another. wtf?!? Seriously, there are all sorts of institutions that are sexist and racist in practice. We ought not be taking kids to them. Find a Muslim cultural center that does not practice sex discrimination, or keep the kids out of the religious chambers in this center. Similarly if you have to cover a girl’s hair to take her into a Church of Christ cultural center, or make her wear a dress to visit an Orthodox Jewish facility — this is the definition of gender discrimination. And this religious-based sex discrimination is the imposition of religious practices and beliefs, not the voluntary prayer. I say again, wtf?

Let’s just picture the teasing between the kids about this enforced gender division, and how the individual kids felt to be sent to the front of the room or the back of the room based on gender.

Participating in prayers, voluntarily, is not illegal. Being discriminated against on the basis of your gender is illegal.

I say again, wtf?!?

Tech Coed

My father-in-law (in Massachusetts) was in town for his fiftieth MIT reunion — class of 1958! He took my partner and me to a couple of events, and we noticed among the red-jacketed men a few red-jacketed women. By various accounts, there were nine to fifteen women (out of a thousand students) in the Class of ’58 at MIT, a half dozen of whom were at the 50th reunion.

Tonight, five of them — representing mathematics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, and physics — got together and revisited a song they sang back in the 50s, called something like “My mother was a Tech Coed” — apparently a takeoff of another MIT favorite, “My father was a something something engineer.” We chatted with some of them tonight for a while, and got to hear amazing stories about classes, the women’s dorm that held only 17 students — so the rest had to live off-campus — and other experiences of MIT in the 1950s.

But the song was the highlight, and they were kind enough to give us permission to reprint the lyrics that they sang — they said there were probably ten or fifteen verses altogether in the original. The first four are what they recalled of those verses. The last two they wrote at the reunion.

She never held me on her knee
But she was all the world to me
That lady with the pointy head
My mother was a Tech coed.

She couldn’t cook she couldn’t sew
But she could fix a radio
She used T-squares to make a bed
My mother was a Tech coed.

As she approached maternity
She also got her PhD
And started working on Pre Med
My mother was a Tech coed.

Her cocktails were a potent brew
She learned the trick in 5.02*
She always bought her cakes and bread
My mother was a Tech coed.

Now 50 years have come and gone
I still remember dear old mom
Her dying breath she taught me well
Above all else, that Tech is hell.

We are the queens of gray and red
The very coolest Tech coeds.

* Second semester freshman chemistry.

happy holidays in dover

Happy holidays and merry xmas to rational Christians: Judge Jones (a Bush 43 appointee) has not only found the obvious religious motivation in the Dover School Board’s actions, but also found the obvious religious motivation in the development of the intelligent design curriculum.

[decision available @ MD PA court website and also @ msnbc. News coverage at nyt 11/20; significant commentary at pharyngula and panda's thumb; commentary roundup @ questionable authority] Additional commentary, added as I come across it: Ann Althouse had a great potential headline for the story: School Board in the Hands of an Angry Judge. Chortle. Timothy Sandefur laid out ten responses to complaints about Kitzmiller‘s legal analysis, authority, etc. Jasen Rosenhouse @ CSICoP offers a point-by-point summary.

This was nothing less than a judicial smackdown. Judge Jones, “out of an abundance of caution and in the exercise of completeness” (p.71), covered all possible arguments for ID as science — and frankly decimated them. Demolished? Destroyed? Devastated? So many verbs from which to choose. My take on the principal takehome points are this (1) ID is religion not science; (2) the Dover School Board intended to offer it as religion; (3) this is an establishment under both the endorsement test and the Lemon test no matter how you read them. I’m highlighting my favorite parts in that order, below the fold.


a few choice ID-related quotes

Eric Rothschild, representing the Kitzmiller plaintiffs, in Plaintiffs’ Response to Defendants’ Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law:

Defendants spend 898 paragraphs of proposed factual findings and 52 proposed legal conclusions avoiding the mountain of inconvenient evidence demonstrating that the Dover Area School Board’s change to the biology curriculum was done for religious reasons, and that intelligent design is inherently religious. At bottom, their defense depends on three unsustainable contentions: (1) It doesn’t matter that intelligent design’s designers describe their movement as a religious one. (2) It doesn’t matter what the Board members said about creationism or religion generally because intelligent design is not religious. And therefore (3) this Court should not base its decision in this case on the types of evidence that were dispositive in Edwards and McLean. But defendants’ position cannot be squared with either the evidence or the Supreme Court’s and the Third Circuit’s settled Establishment Clause jurisprudence. For the record is clear that intelligent design is a religious view; that defendants latched onto it because they wanted to impart that religious view to Dover’s ninth-graders; and that defendants succeeded in their goal. No reasonable observer could draw any other conclusions.

and — this is too good, I have to include it:

On the hotly contested issue whether board members who eventually voted for the change to the biology curriculum were discussing creationism at the June 2004 board meetings, defendants again suggest facts that can co-exist only in parallel universes. Defendants admit that William Buckingham discussed creationism at the June board meetings (Defs.’ FF 244, 267), but then insist that “one of the inaccuracies in the press reporting on board meetings was that the reporters were referring to ID as creationism.” Defs.’ FF 248. While arguments can exist in the alternative, facts cannot. Either the Board was promoting creationism at the June meetings (and the reporters described events correctly) or it was not. The evidence – and defendants’ admissions in paragraphs 244 and 267 – make clear which account is correct.

(Emphasis added. The referenced Defendants’ Factual Findings and other post-trial docs available online, courtesy NCSE.)

William Dembski, quoted by Panda’s Thumb (12/5):

As for your example, I’m not going to take the bait. You’re asking me to play a game: “Provide as much detail in terms of possible causal mechanisms for your ID position as I do for my Darwinian position.” ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories. If ID is correct and an intelligence is responsible and indispensable for certain structures, then it makes no sense to try to ape your method of connecting the dots. True, there may be dots to be connected. But …

Paul Mirecki, quoted in God, Science, and the Kooky Kansans Who Love Them Both! (12/5):

You’ll often hear fundamentalists say, ‘Science is a religion, Darwin is the high priest, and you have to have faith to believe in evolution.’ This is just nonsense. I don’t believe in evolution. I accept the findings of scientists. There’s a big difference between the two.

Kansas State Sen. Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe, quoted in Lawrence Journal-World (11/24):

We have to set a standard that it’s not culturally acceptable to mock Christianity in America.

public knowledge of science

I want free public lectures about science (and okay, social sciences, humanities, politics, art, whatever — but especially science!) to be as freely, conspicuously, and ubiquitously available as church/synagogue/temple services. In a city the size of Boston, people have the opportunity to choose from hundreds of free lectures about religious ideas every week, probably several within easy walking distance. Counting Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, these offerings hit Sunday, Saturday, and Friday; plus scattered such offerings sponsored throughout the week.

Viewed in this light, religious services are simply free public lectures about religious ideas, and I want the same for science: multiple series of lectures on biology, astronomy, nuclear physics, astrophysics (I really don’t get it at all), geology, chemistry … Choose between folksy styles with food & discussion, lecture styles from authoritarian learned types; series that tie it all into politics, or series that tackle the ethical questions relating to particular scientific techniques.

Over the last few months I’ve been thinking about the various statistics on US citizens’ belief and understanding of evolution, claims of particular religious beliefs, and the like. Recently I’ve followed the Dover, PA, trial, read various histories of science, religion, and the conflicts between religious and secular values. Here in the US and elsewhere, the forces of religious intolerance, bigotry, and ignorance are on the rise. At the same time, polls seem to repeatedly suggest that knowledge about basic science is declining and belief in creationism is rising. At times, it can look pretty bleak.

The dubious appeal of religious doctrines aside, some piece of this must surely be an artifact of the availability of particular kinds of information. The supply of information helps shape the demand, and we are well supplied (I might say too well supplied) with religious information. Religious institutions provide free public lectures on a weekly basis from people who are (some lay ministers excepted) trained in the field.

In a sense, religious services prove the effectiveness of open content as a means of popularizing a source of information. How many billions, quadrillions, zillions of dollars have been given to religious groups over the years freely? (Not counting all the coerced funds produced by ties to the state or through outright violence.) Religions are funded with the pledge drive from hell: every single religious service. “We interrupt this service … to ask you for money to help keep our services going. You don’t get this quality of direct-to-God information anywhere else! Pledge now, and you’ll get this lovely piece of pie in the sky when you die! Marked with our logo.” Religious institutions give away their content for free, and they get back in spades: donations to support mega-churches, cathedrals, “towers of power” and so on.

Knowledge about the world — science, our governments, our communities, our environment, our history and literature and art and human nature and health — is not comparably available. This knowledge — which would go so far to empowering and pleasuring people — is carefully metered out to those who can pay for “higher education”.

But imagine if we had free public lectures about science every week; several within walking distance from any point in the city. Would it make a difference? Could people fill the deity-shaped holes in their hearts with excitement and passion about the real world? Could we imagine no hell below us, above us only sky? and then learn why the sky is blue and how fast light travels and really help people understand dark matter and black holes and string theory, for gods’ sakes?

I’d love to find out. And I’ve seen a few moves towards greater openness of academic & scientific content. Stanford is making public lectures available via iTunes. I’ve recently seen advertising on MBTA for free public lectures from Harvard. It’s not quite multiple ongoing series of free public lectures, but maybe it’s a start.

Every university and college should record just a tiny fraction of their content and make it available for free to the public. Consider it a good-will gesture for all those high-handed renovation projects that so annoy the local neighbors. Start with the big lecture hall introductory classes. When a professor wins an award for lecturing or teaching, tape them for the next semester & put them online so everyone can see how fabulous they are. And all those endowed lecture series are just begging to be digitized and made freely available. Many of them have been taped for years; digitization would simultaneously preserve the original tape, make the material more widely available, publicize the lecture series, and honor the, uh, honoree.

And frankly, I’d like to see how well the much-vaunted popularity of religious doctrines stands up to a little competition. [Perhaps this whole issue lends support to the entertainment industry's contention that "you can't compete with free" ....]

update 11/22: This posting about “open knowledge drives out closed” is relevant …

update 12/4: Just read about Cafe Scientifique in an article about PZ Myers.

update 12/21: PZ Myers / pharyngula has this relevant post about scientists’ need to communicate clearly, succinctly, engagingly.

jonathan kozol on education & no child left behind

DS: You also suggest that our current system of locally financed schools be abolished, claiming that it perpetuates inequality by allowing suburbs like Scarsdale or Manhasset to spend twice as much on each student as less affluent cities do.

JK: Schooling should not be left to the whim or wealth of village elders. I believe that we should fund all schools in the U.S. with our national resources. All these kids are being educated to be Americans, not citizens of Minneapolis or San Francisco.

DS: Isn’t that why President Bush enacted No Child Left Behind, to narrow the achievement gap between white students and minorities?

JK: I would hesitate to try to navigate the thought processes of that sophisticated, well-educated product of Andover.

DS: Seriously, why would Republicans, who have traditionally opposed big government, encumber schools with the testing requirements attached to No Child Left Behind?

JK: The kind of testing we are doing today is sociopathic in its repetitive and punitive nature. Its driving motive is to highlight failure in inner-city schools as dramatically as possible in order to create a ground swell of support for private vouchers or other privatizing schemes.

“School Monitor: Questions for Jonathan Kozol”. Interview by DEBORAH SOLOMON. NYT Magazine, 2005 Sept. 4.


yet more depressing news:

  • iraq: where people keep dying. A friend recently met with her family who lives in Baghdad, who reported a) her elderly aunties regularly have laser sightings trained on them by US soldiers; b) her cousin’s cousin was recently shot & killed by US soldiers; c) they still don’t have power & clean water most of the time. The situation is worse than it was a year ago. They were impressed to hear that an American woman would camp outside Bush’s home, since they thought there was no dissent in the US. …

  • declining science literacy, increasing religious belief, and increasing poverty in the US. See creationism survey (NYT) and the widely reported new poverty statistics from the Census Bureau, available at; press briefing.

  • the FDA decided to hold off approving emergency contraception, AGAIN, despite promises by new commissioner to have decided by today (9/1). The FDA Director of the Office of Women’s Health resigned in response. See feministe; prnewswire.

  • and i just heard that the 8th Circuit affirmed the lower court ruling in Bnetd. [opinion @ 8th Cir] A big loss for consumers and tinkerers.

but still there is light shed:

  • the NYT recently published a supremely arrogant, sexist, and stupid editorial / piece by Keith Ablow. Ablow suggested that women should think twice before letting their husbands watch childbirth, since it might destroy the man’s sexual attraction to his female partner. a number of commentators have given that article the trashing it deserved. see belle waring 8/31, for example; see also belle waring 8/23; pandagon; slate; crooked timber on women’s culture (and by negative implication what men’s culture is failing to do).

    me, i couldn’t help remembering how sensible, non-sexist people handle the issue in a way that recognizes human realities, sexuality, and needs of all parties: In The Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy and Birth, the authors straightforwardly noted that after pregnancy & birth, some non-birth-parents might have difficulty feeling sexual toward the birth-parent. The authors didn’t try some reductive pop-psych “oh my god I’ve seen her insides” explanation, but pointed out that it could happen for a variety of reasons: birthing-related, parenting-related, the efforts of adjusting to a new lifestyle, new roles, and new family configurations. the answer? give it time, and work on having adult time together.

  • orcinus posted on right-wing bloggers decrying the motes in left-wing eyes (“all our extremists is belong to you”) [link from sideshow]

  • Reading A1 posted on the suggestion from right-wingers (apparently frustrated that their ideas suck) that left-wingers can’t criticize unless they come up with fully-formed strategic responses themselves. i feel like excerpting:

    [W]ho exactly is the audience for this sort of policy wanking supposed to be? Other than a tiny community of Beltway or Beltway-oriented intellectuals, or wannabes. The anti-war left is nowhere near the seat of power. Power is held, in fact, by a gang that regards opposition in general, and opposition to the war in particular, as tantamount to treason. … Even if we had detailed, rational and realistic policy advice to give, they wouldn’t listen to it. … It’s not “unserious” or “immature” or whatever other bullshit terms are favored by the Beltway types to advocate the simple message Out Now. On the contrary—advocating such messages is the only real political space within which we have to operate. Our job is not to pretend we’re living under a different regime than we are, one that takes policy proposals seriously. Our job is to do the only thing we really can do, namely cause as much domestic pain as possible for Bush over the war. … You want to have a real effect on Iraq policy? Drive Bush’s numbers down, drive the GOP’s numbers down, take their Congressional majority away from them, take the White House back. That’s not done with policy prescriptions—which (again, has Cooper been paying attention these last few years?) the vast majority of the American public will never hear, or hear an honest version of, anyway.

    I’ve got a rant, somewhere inside, about labels, actions, and correctly identifying your own politics & where they fit on the historical spectrum. Something in response to the right-wingers who try to claim the higher ground created by the left-wing civil rights movement, the left-wing anti-fascist movements, and so on. But it’ll have to wait.

ID advocate admits it ‘has no content’

”I’m not pushing to have [ID] taught as an ‘alternative’ to Darwin, and neither are they,” he says in response to one question about Discovery’s agenda. ”What’s being pushed is to have Darwinism critiqued, to teach there’s a controversy. Intelligent design itself does not have any content.”

The evolution of George Gilder Boston Globe, 7/27 [linked from pharyngula]

It’s refreshing to see an ID advocate admit that there is no content to intelligent design.

As for their claim that they all they want to do is teach the controversy — great. Teach the controversy. Teach scientific controversies in science class. Since there’s no content to ID, there’s no scientific controversy. So what kind of controversy is it? It’s a political & social controversy. Political & social controversies absolutely should be taught in schools, in history, social science, current issues type classes. Heck, even comparative religion classes — why not? I’d love to see kids learning about other political & social controversies about children’s education: the controversy over sex ed, for instance, and how right-wingers want to teach abstinence & sexual ethics instead of sexual and reproductive healthcare. Or hey, how about we ‘teach the controversy’ regarding going to war on disputed evidence?

First Museum of Fake Goods

Novosti reports that the Russian State Institute of Intellectual Property has opened up a museum of fake goods, to “train qualified intellectual property specialists” in recognizing fake goods and “fight[ing]” the fake goods.

Fake goods? Fake goods that fight? Vodka that really isn’t vodka, movies that really aren’t movies — but the fake vodka and movies have some real kung-fu.

Good to see that Russia is following the fine example of the US: while education in actually creating art and music gets fewer and fewer dollars, education in how to police art and music gets more and more dollars.

See, e.g., any of the numerous university “copyright education” websites (Univ. of California); organizations promoting copyright curriculum like Friends of Active Copyright Education (FACE), an initiative of the Copyright Society of the U.S.A. developed to “provide a broad range of resources to foster and support copyright awareness”; and the various incursions ofo copyright curriculum into the schools (Never too young for a copyright lesson, CNet 2005/5/23, about copyright lectures for a 6th grade commencement in Utah).

Compare: Dumbing Down, the Dwindling Funding of the Arts (World Music Central); Music for All Foundation statistical review of music education funding in California public schools.

Act: and Kids Smell Bullshit.

derivative works on intelligent design

two great tastes that taste great together: (critiquing) intelligent design, and derivative works.

Ernie Miller rewrote Pastor Niemöller’s classic work for the modern era of attacks on science:

First they came after biology
and I did not speak out
because I was not a biologist

Then they came after geology
and I did not speak out
because I was not a geologist

Then they came after astronomy
and I did not speak out
because I was not an astronomer

They they came after my discipline
and there was no one left
to speak out for my discipline.

First, I love this; what an excellent point. The sooner all rationalists figure out that ID is an attack on reason, education, and the scientific method, the better.

But I can’t help but note that, viewed in light of the annoying Dr. Seuss case, Prof. Miller’s re-worked version probably falls on the wrong side of the infamous parody/satire distinction. And Siva has republished it! (The original poem seems to have been written in 1938 & so barring complications of international publication, renewal, etc., I presume it is still under copyright.) Clearly the seemingly straight & narrow path of copyright balance leads directly to Flamboyant Copyright Anarchy! Truly, we are all casual copyright infringers now.

New Yorker on ID: the Unseen Urban Planner

The New Yorker has an article evaluating the <cough cough> science of intelligent design.

Most amusing (and insightful) quote (from discussion of Behe’s “irreducible complexity” argument):

It’s true that when you confront biologists with a particular complex structure like the flagellum they sometimes have a hard time saying which part appeared before which other parts. But then it can be hard, with any complex historical process, to reconstruct the exact order in which events occurred, especially when, as in evolution, the addition of new parts encourages the modification of old ones. When you’re looking at a bustling urban street, for example, you probably can’t tell which shop went into business first. This is partly because many businesses now depend on each other and partly because new shops trigger changes in old ones (the new sushi place draws twenty-somethings who demand wireless Internet at the café next door). But it would be a little rash to conclude that all the shops must have begun business on the same day or that some Unseen Urban Planner had carefully determined just which business went where.

raise your hands if you’re glad you’re not raising a kid in kansas

I’m just so sorry for the kids in Kansas, because their education is being screwed up by a bunch of not-quite-as-fully-evolved-as-the-rest-of-us folks with their heads up their nether regions. [The Kansas state board of education is holding hearings again on whether & how evolution should be taught in schools, and to what extent the religious convictions of some folks should inspire and guide criticism of scientific knowledge.]

Science education should be education about science. Period. If a person’s religious beliefs cause her to question evolution, geology, dinosaurs, or whether pi = 3.14…, then by all means, she can screw up her own kids’ minds & teach them whatever bogus facts she wants, at home. But don’t screw up the education of an entire states’ worth of kids. Geez.

Some part of me almost manages to feel sorry for the leaders of this initiative. They have built their house on the sand of fairy tale history rather than on a rock of faith. Consequently, when the fairy tale history butts up against actual history, their entire religious faith is shaken. I’m not religious — I’ve been an atheist for more than half my life now — but even I can appreciate that there’s something deeply sad about someone whose claim to a deep religious faith can be shaken by, well, scientific knowledge.

I said almost sorry. Mostly I’m just really POd at these people for being such bozos & inflicting their own pathologies & fears on the rest of the world. Retrograde jerks.

[cnn 5/5/; AP/kansas city star 5/7] And just because I love ‘em, a link to the National Center for Science Education, who do great work.

And check out this great cover from a recent issue of Nature:
Nature Magazine April 2005 cover with a warning about evolution

florida high school yearbook insanity

This is at least the second such story out of Florida in the last couple of years. This year — 2005, not 1955 — high school principal Sam Ward at Fleming Island High School in Clay County, Florida, has decided that the high school yearbook will not publish the photo of a senior young woman who had her picture taken in a “tuxedo” top instead of a “drape” top.

The mind boggles at this guy’s stupidity. How is he 50 years behind? Why on earth are the students not rising up in protest? This kind of idiocy from adults, and apathy / “good soldier” behavior from students is why I will never, ever live in the South again.

victory in georgia for science education

Good. Georgia District Court has ordered removal of the anti-evolution stickers in science textbooks. [sfgate 1/13]

reading, censorship & theocracy in the US

… Sometimes, fighting for freedom of access to information seems shallow in comparison to the struggle against poverty and inequality, or against government-sponsored murder and torture, or even the struggle to survive in the face of hurricanes and tsunamis and floods. But ultimately I believe it’s all the same struggle.

… Philip Pullman recently wrote an essay, published in The War on Words The Guardian [2004-11-09] and previously apparently in Index on Censorship, about reading, dogma, and theocracy in Bush’s US. So timely, as the world faces so many incidents of censorship and outright ideological attempts to control education and access to information. A few notes:

My third and final charge against the theocracies, atheist or religious, and their failure to read properly is this: that the act of true reading is in its very essence democratic.

Consider the nature of what happens when we read a book – and I mean, of course, a work of literature, not an instruction manual or a textbook – in private, unsupervised, un-spied-on, alone. It isn’t like a lecture: it’s like a conversation. There’s a back-and-forthness about it. The book proposes, the reader questions, the book responds, the reader considers. We bring our own preconceptions and expectations, our own intellectual qualities, and our limitations, too, our own previous experiences of reading, our own temperament, our own hopes and fears, our own personality to the encounter.

I like this analyis of reading. The observation isn’t unique, but tying this form of reader empowerment into broader exercises of democracy and empowerment is sharp.

One of the most extraordinary scenes I’ve ever watched, and one which brings everything I’ve said in this piece into sharp focus, occurs in the famous videotape of George W Bush receiving the news of the second strike on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As the enemies of democracy hurl their aviation-fuel-laden thunderbolt at the second tower, their minds intoxicated by a fundamentalist reading of a religious text, the leader of the free world sits in a classroom reading a story with children. If only he’d been reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, or Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, or a genuine fairy tale! That would have been a scene to cheer. It would have illustrated values truly worth fighting to preserve. It would have embodied all the difference between democratic reading and totalitarian reading, between reading that nourishes the heart and the imagination and reading that starves them.

I have a minor quibble with the substitution of the term “theocratic” for what might be more properly termed “dogmatic.” Theocratic would be a special instance of dogmatic. I understand, I think, what Pullman is getting at; he wants us to see the common strands between theocratic dogmas and other forms of ideological dogmas, such as the Soviet Union. The US’ current dogma might fit somewhere in the broader slate even if it doesn’t quite line up with Iranian-style theocracy. But as a US citizen who is quite concerned about actual theocracy, I want use of terms to be precise. Just a nitpicker, I guess. I suppose I wouldn’t care if I didn’t have particular beefs with the use of religion to create and buttress political structures. But among dogmas, theologies are particularly prone to abuse.

Pullman also quotes Karen Armstrong’s recent The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam:

There is a good description of two different modes of reading in Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2001). Armstrong is eloquent on the difference between mythos and logos, fundamentally different ways of apprehending the reality of the world. Mythos deals with meaning, with the timeless and constant, with the intuitive, with what can only be fully expressed in art or music or ritual. Logos, by contrast, is the rational, the scientific, the practical; that which can be taken apart and put together again; that which is susceptible to logical explanation.

Both are necessary, both are to be cherished. However, they engage with different aspects of the world, and these days, says Armstrong, they are not equally valued. Her argument is that in modern times, because of the astonishing progress of science and technology, people in the western world “began to think that logos was the only means to truth, and began to discount mythos as false and superstitious”. This resulted in the phenomenon of fundamentalism, which, despite its own claims to be a return to the old true ways of understanding the holy book, is not a return of any kind, but something entirely new: “Protestant fundamentalists read the Bible in a literal, rational way that is quite different from the more mystical, allegorical approach of pre-modern spirituality.”

These notes lead to the heart of Pullman’s observations, which are that the current US government is increasingly dogmatic in dangerous ways. It’s true that those who see fit to govern us seem to have less of a sense of humor than ever. I’m reminded of John Ashcroft installing covers for the naked lady statues at DOJ (for $8000, apparently!). (U1) More recently, just a day or two ago I saw this story about Mississippi county library officials banning Jon Stewart’s America (The Book). The district library director was offended by the photoshopped photo of the naked US Supreme Court, which asks readers to “restore [the justices'] dignity by matching each justice with his or her respective robe.” Surely, the inability to appreciate absurdity and satire is another feature of the dogmatic … It’s always depressing when a librarian falls short of the standards that so many of us uphold so well. Robert Willits, library director for Jackson & George counties, said “I’ve been a librarian for 40 years and this is the only book I’ve objected to so strongly that I wouldn’t allow it to circulate.” Jesus. Mississippi really is backwards if this was the most offensive thing he’s seen in 40 years. Or is it that he was particularly offended by the use of nudity in the satiric context? … Certainly it wasn’t the prurient aspect of this nudity that appalled, since the sight of 9 naked people, not one of whom is less than 55 years old, isn’t really calculated to arouse prurient interest in most folks today. [update 1/12: after complaints the library board un-banned the book]

I remembered recently the story an acquaintance of mine told me about her youth. Her parents were embedded in an evangelical church, hung up on issues of satanism. At one point her parents became concerned about her choice of reading materials — science fiction, fantasy, comic books, historical romance novels — convinced that some of it at least was satanic — and literally began burning her books. After she pulled some books out of the flames and pointed out to them that they were classics, or not satanic, or were in some other way significantly misapprehended, her parents changed tactics. They demanded that she herself sort the books out according to a standard they adapted from the Supreme Court case Miller v. California: that the books she kept had to have redeeming literary or other social value. Her parents weren’t concerned with just the prurient interest, either, apparently; her books had to attain some higher value other than mere non-prurience in order to be redeemed.

She was required to sort her books according to this metric, and turn over a good portion of her collection of “escapist” fiction with no “redeeming values” to be destroyed. … Forcing someone to apply another’s standard to their own punishment is a tactic of humiliation, of course, used by authoritarians to make the victim complicit in their own victimization. …

Redeeming. Suggesting that the books were damned to begin with, and had to be redeemed by some especial value. Damned, I suppose, because they were for entertainment, or purposes other than religious education. Redeemed by being for some other acceptable purpose. The Supreme Court in Miller damned books (and films, etc.) for their prurient value. A hang-over of our Puritan religious past, a distaste for the sexual. The Court let materials escape if they had other redeeming values — even prurient materials may be redeemed by some other benefit to society. But change the test just a little, as my friend’s parents did, simply drop the prurience requirement, and you’ve shifted the burden from some literature or art to all literature or art. All literature or art is now guilty unless proved innocent, damned unless redeemed.

Carry that notion a little further, and measure science and education and medical information on the same yardstick. Now you’re no longer balancing science education in the schools or medical information against the truth of the science — now you weigh it against some other scale, in which there is a subjective redemptive value. We don’t teach the truth because of its truth. We teach because we want to control the ideological outcome. Now, advocates of so-called intelligent design can feel outraged, hurt, treated unfairly, because all they want is equal time, a fair share of the educational pie. Critics of dispensing information about birth control and the efficacy of condom use for disease prevention can weigh the information not against its accuracy but against their values.

In this view, education isn’t about truth. Education is about ideology, and the intelligent design folks deserve just as much opportunity to control the instillation of ideology (“education”) as the scientists and teachers. Learning, truth, education, truth, aren’t valued for themselves. In fact they’re damned because they cause us to question the values that redeem.

Pullman observed in the His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, etc.) that all of history is a struggle between those who want to disseminate knowledge, and those who want to control and limit that dissemination. Between those who trust only themselves with information — and consequently with freedom — and those who think that information and freedom and power belong to all.

Another acquaintance of mine was recently wrestling with the question of whether or not to have an abortion. Her circumstances were difficult, but she had always identified as “pro-life,” and most of her close friends and family members felt similarly and encouraged her not to have the abortion. Ultimately they joined, though, in supporting her; they believed that she would do the right thing, whatever it was; they trusted her to make the right decision. I was angry about this, although I didn’t discuss it with her. It’s easy to trust people you know. But who are they to make those decisions for all the people they don’t know? Why, in fact, should the people that pro-lifers don’t know have to trust the pro-lifers to make the right decision for them?

The Bush administration is just one manifestation of this greater historical tendency. We ought to weigh this manifestation properly — hard to do, sometimes, when you’re in the thick of it. The Bush administration didn’t start the fear; but it is capitalizing on it, and building on it, and strengthening that tendency in the US and around the world. The push is away from multilateralism, away from respect of others, and towards unilateralism, towards limiting trust to oneself and one’s clan. The control of people’s access to information is a symptom and a sign, but it is also a means towards the end of controlling people. You don’t trust people to do the right thing with information, and by keeping it away from them, you prevent them from doing what the wrong thing.

And since all our struggles — whether against economic injustice or the effects of natural disasters or the repression of governments — are carried forward by individuals, then trusting individuals with information, empowering them through information, and letting people build their own tools is still the best way to further social change. … which of course is why, as Pullman observes, governments and hierarchies such as the Bush administration are always so interested in stifling knowledge and education transfer. Keep the knowledge, keep the power, don’t trust anybody else to do the right thing.


U1: 2005/July/9. Replacement Atty. General Gonzalez quietly undraped the statues, returning a little bit of sanity to the otherwise indecent DOJ.

creationists in Dover, Pennsylvania

This isn’t completely new news — I’ve been following the story for a few days (weeks?). The Dover, Pennsylvania, school board was taken over by anti-evolution Christians who wish to teach “intelligent design.”

But in reading another story [in, 12/13] about the situation, I started to get annoyed & ranty.

  • School boards are political entities, elected to represent views and give general guidance about how the school district should be run. They really have no business determining curriculum.

  • The article cites a Gallup poll finding that 45% of Americans believe God created people in their present form within the last 10,000 years. This might suggest extreme ignorance on the part of the American people. And, yeah, it does. But the problem is that it’s not new ignorance — it’s just a different dogma. Whatever the numbers were 10, 20, 40 years ago, the American people were just as ignorant — it’s just that they were reciting by rote a different belief. For a variety of reasons, the au courant belief is in “creationism.” Americans clearly never really understood the science or they wouldn’t have been so susceptible to the bizarre bill of goods the anti-evolution Christians are trying to sell them.

    So what’s the problem, if people are still just as ignorant, and they’re just ignorantly mouthing different things now? The problem is that what they’re ignorantly mouthing now no longer corresponds with reality. Which means that the ignorance is obvious. This makes us look bad, and it gives the nutjobs some facade of momentum.

  • Many reporters mischaracterize the conflict, as of course, do many people just trying to understand it. They present it as: Christians want to put alternative design in the classroom, and scientists say alternative design is wrong.

    Here are some problems with this:

    • One, “Christians” as a whole do not wish to do this. Evolution is not any more in conflict with the doctrines of Christianity than a host of other scientific understandings (the world is round and rotates around the sun). So it’s more accurate to not present this as Christians-versus-Scientists. Instead, describe them as “Christians who believe in intelligent design”.

    • Scientists don’t say intelligent design is wrong. They say there is no evidence for it. This is crucial, because there can be many, many theories (in the lay sense of the term) that explain any observable fact. But we don’t present all the possible theories. We present only those that have some weight of the evidence. Intelligent design has no positive evidence suggesting it. It is based solely on critiques of particular findings or methodologies in science (and on one larger critique, addressed below). But there’s no particular evidence for it. If we actually made a good faith attempt at the ID advocates’ version of “balanced”, we would have to discuss, first, the positive evidence theories of the origins of life (there’s only one: evolution) and then all the “theories” (lay version) that don’t mesh (thousands of religious and non-religious origin stories including so-called intelligent design and and other creation stories; anything that has a different story than evolution, even though, unlike all other science classes, these “theories” have no positive evidence to support them).

    • ID’s larger critique is that the system is just too complex to have come about by chance. Basically this boils down to ID advocates not understanding the theory of evolution. Because, of course, evolution is not about chance; it’s about the operation of certain principles of nature.

info news
  • Sex research is stigmatized. [nyt 11/9] Yeah, not least because of the Bush Administration.

  • Microsoft settles antitrust suit by Novell for $536M. [nyt 11/9]

  • FCC asserts federal control over VOIP. [nyt 11/9]

    To subject a global network to disparate local regulatory treatment by 51 different jurisdictions would be to destroy the very qualities that embody the technological marvel that is the Internet.

    Hmm. “[D]isparate local regulatory treatment” … federalism.

  • Margaret Mitchell estate (Gone With the Wind) sues Project Gutenberg. [NYT 11/8]

    PG’s Australian affiliate posted GWTW on the Internet after it entered the public domain in Australia. Unfortunately, thanks to the copyright maximalists & the folks in Congress who just don’t care enough to figure out the issue, the CTEA extended copyright terms in the US, keeping GWTW out of the public domain. Of course the US is busily getting rid of various national public domains through bilateral trade agreements, such as the US-Australia trade agreement.

  • Iran continues censoring Internet speech and access to information, including sites relating to democracy and the rights of women. [NYT 11/8]
creationist “science”

Another school board votes for creationism, this time in Wisconsin. “[V]arious models/theories”, my ass. Their science wouldn’t pass the Daubert test.

In the meantime, Cobb County, Georgia’s mealy-mouthed “Evolution is just a theory” sticker disclaimer law is being tried.

Quotes & Reading

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

– James Madison, from a letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822

… and Protest Music! Protest song is back – with a vengeance |