Archive for May, 2008

South Carolina Senate permits display of 10 Commandments

May 31, 2008

The South Carolina Senate recently passed a bill that would allow the public display of 11 “historical documents” that “make up the nation’s foundation of law and government.” I use the scare quotes because this set includes two “documents” that manifestly do not make up the foundation of US government: the ten commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

I’ve got an idea for a law: legislators should have to read the Constitution before taking office. The Establishment Clause clearly forbids the passing of any law with the purpose or effect of establishing religion. This bill would allow public schools to post the Ten Commandments. Do they not see how blatantly unconstitutional that is?

The Establishment Clause exists for a reason: to preserve the freedom of every American to believe what they wish. This bill would singles out Christianity and Judaism. Why don’t they include Muslim commandments? Why don’t they include the Five Precepts of Buddhism? Why don’t they include the Eight I’d Really Rather You Didn’ts of the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

In order to guarantee freedom of religion, public places and proceedings must either exclude all religion, or include all religion. To endorse one religion specifically, as this bill does, denies the freedom of those who follow all the others, or who follow no religion at all.

The bill has already passed the House, but the version passed in the Senate included one or more amendments (e.g. the inclusion of the Lord’s Prayer) that will need to go before the House before the bill can be sent to the governor. Let’s hope a majority of the representatives get some sense. If this bill passes, it will be challenged and struck down in federal court, but not before a gob of taxpayer money is pissed down the drain.


A little camera shy

May 31, 2008

The Javan rhinoceros is the world’s rarest, and one of its two subspecies lives only in Java. There are only about 70 left in the wild. 90% live in Ujung Kulon National Park, where the World Wildlife Fund has set up motion-activated cameras to track their behavior.

I guess this one doesn’t appreciate being filmed! Toward the end of the clip, it mounts a startling attack on the camera.

For more information on efforts to save the Javan rhino from extinction, head here.

Uncontacted tribal peoples found

May 30, 2008

I found this news on CNN: a group of indigenous people in Brazil were photographed from the air. These people have had no contact with the civilized world; when they saw the aircraft overhead, the men drew their bows in threat.

There are around 100 uncontacted peoples in the world, and the majority of them are found in the vast reaches of the Amazon rain forest. There they are in danger from disease, encroachment, and especially logging, which reduces the territory available to them and crowds unfamiliar groups together.

This kind of news both thrills and distresses me. Indigenous peoples like those photographed above practice a way of life that has continued unbroken since the first word was broken, since the first tool was fashioned. In so doing, they have managed something which their “civilized” counterparts are having difficulty figuring out: they have lived on this Earth for thousands of years without bringing it to the brink of destruction. This means that every time an indigenous people is absorbed or destroyed, a sustainable way of living that has existed for as long as humanity is lost forever. This must not be countenanced.

The CNN article mentions two organizations that are doing all they can to prevent the loss of the remaining uncontacted peoples in the world. One is Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, and another is Survival International. Their aim is laudable, and they must be supported.

The Hovind Scale goes global!

May 29, 2008

As of yesterday, the Hovind Scale was mentioned on over 2500 websites. The most prominent example is Dr. PZ Myers’ Pharyngula, while the most amusing example is on Ray Comfort’s blog. A reader posted the following comment (thanks to cyberguy of the forums for pointing this out):

Ray did you know you’re part of the Hovind scale equation’s criteria?

I about died laughing when I saw this: Under the scientific illiteracy variable’s choices, the most extreme measure for poor scientific understanding, is the option, “Ray Comfort…” Level 4.


I can’t tell if the poster is being sarcastic or not, but it’s funny either way.

What is perhaps even more exciting (to me, at any rate), is that the scale has been translated into several other languages! A Finnish blogger has translated the entire scale into Finnish. It’s wonderful, and one can also have some fun by translating it into English using Google. Please check it out.

As I’ve noted before, the online calculator has also been translated – into German.

All in all these are pretty exciting times. I hope people keep using the scale and refining it, and most of all I hope that those who do refine it will tell me how they did so!

The war on science enters the Louisiana House

May 28, 2008

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) reports on a bill that was approved unanimously by the Louisiana House Education Committee, was passed by the Lousiana Senate, and will soon move before the Lousiana House of Representatives. Senate Bill 733, the slyly named “Lousiana Science Education Act”, would require that teachers be allowed to “use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.” The problems with this are twofold.

First, the Louisiana education standards already encourage teachers to instill critical thinking in their students, and to use that skill in every class, including science.

Second, the bill specifically names those sciences that the religious right in the US seems to get so riled about: evolution, abiogenesis, and the climate science behind global warming.

This bill is clearly intended to allow teachers to sneak intelligent design materials into their classrooms, a tactic which has already been stricken down in a federal court. It is meant to encourage the laughable idea that evolution and intelligent design are somehow on equal footing, that ID somehow deserves time in science classrooms despite its utter lack of theory, research, and resemblence to real science. Teachers who do so are only misleading their students about the success of modern evolutionary theory, and about the nature of science.

There is only one possible outcome if this bill passes. A teacher will introduce ID materials in his/her class. A parent or other concerned citizen will sue. The ACLU, or some equivalent organization, will take charge of the case. The school district will lose, because precedent has been set in federal court for regarding intelligent design as creationism in sheep’s clothing. The school district will then have to pay millions of dollars out of the taxpayers’ own pockets. All of this, just because some Louisiana House committee didn’t bother to look up “science” in the dictionary.

How many more millions will taxpayers have to spend before the religious right stops trying to peddle religion in public school classrooms? If you live in Louisiana, please let your representative know how you feel about the war on science being waged in your legislature.

It is not canon

May 28, 2008

I learned a few years ago that two movies would follow the Lord of the Rings trilogy. One would be an adaptation of The Hobbit, which is so exciting as to set my nerdly demeanor all atwitter. To see Bilbo in his prime; to see Smaug meet his end; to see the Dwarves and their Thief steal into the heart of Erebor, the Loney Mountain; to see the Battle of Five Armies… Such a treat seems almost excessive, after how wonderfully true and moving the LotR movies were. But it is not the forthcoming Hobbit movie that moved me to write this post.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already heard. Another movie will be released the year after The Hobbit. This one will concern itself with events that took place in the sixty years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It will track the actions of certain (not yet specified) characters from LotR, to bridge the gap between the two. In other words, it will be making stuff up.

Tolkien wrote very little about those sixty years. Some was set down in the Appendices to LotR, such as the attempt by the Dwarves of Erebor to retake Moria, and some was hinted at in both The Hobbit and LotR, such as the White Council’s actions against Sauron in Mirkwood, Gollum’s imprisonment in Thranduil’s caves, and Aragorn’s fighting alongside the men of Gondor under a false name. The essential point, however, is that these are all short snatches of story or simply vague hints. Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, and everyone else behind the project will be cobbling these snatches together, along with their own fabrications, into a narrative for the film. They’re going to retcon Tolkien.

Penny Arcade linked to a transcript of a chat session between fans and Peter Jackson, the producer of the two films, and Guillermo del Toro, the director. Both are obscenely talented people, and i have no doubt they will bring all their expertise to bear on this product. I’m just concerned about what this means for Tolkien’s legacy. On the one hand, he is one of the greatest authors of all time. He constructed an entire world, one with a history that lives and breathes, that can be pored over with just as much fascination as the histories of the peoples who live and who have lived in our own world. It should be near instinctual to wish to protect that creation, to ensure that no one else trivializes Tolkien’s vision by inventing new stories for time-honored characters. On the other, Tolkien created a full and vibrant world, and perhaps it would not be so harmful if people of great talent explored that world in ways that the original author did not think to.

I am on the fence. I will remain there, happily containing my fanboyish malcontent, until the film comes out. Rest assured that if it falls short of my expectations, I will be online within moments, registering my disgust throughout the world.

Ah, Chuck Norris

May 27, 2008

This is pretty funny, but I must first apologize for being fixated on the NCBCPS for the moment.

They have an article written by Chuck Norris on the need for Bible courses in US public schools. If the NCBCPS’s motivations are suspect, Chuck Norris’ are openly unconstitutional. Consider this quote, referring to a proposed law in Texas that would mandate Bible education.

The Texas Freedom Network, or TFN, is one of them – a self-admitted adversary of any biblically conservative movement, calling themselves “a mainstream voice to counter the religious right.” The TFN, for example, is requesting five unnecessary changes to the Texas bill, which is intended to assure students are taught this classic text: (emphasis mine)

Mandate that teachers have appropriate academic qualifications and sufficient training on legal and constitutional issues surrounding instruction about the Bible in public schools.

Require rigorous, scholarly reviewed textbooks and other curriculum materials for all courses.

Include strong and specific language that protects the religious freedom of students and their families by barring the use of Bible classes to evangelize or promote personal religious perspectives.

Require the Texas Education Agency to regularly monitor and report on the content of public school Bible courses to ensure that they are academically and legally appropriate.

Continue to allow districts the option to offer – or not offer – such courses.

Let me get this straight. Requiring that teachers be qualified to teach the material is unnecessary? Scholarly reviewed textbooks are unnecessary? Barring evangelism in a public school course is unnecessary?

Chuck Norris clearly has little regard for religious freedom, if his goal is to use the Bible to indoctrinate American students. Further, the NCBCPS’s posting of his article can only be taken as an endorsement of his views. I predict that, for this reason, the Craig County School Board’s Bible course, authored by the NCBCPS, will not withstand scrutiny.

Is this legal?

May 27, 2008

That’s the title of a page within the website of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. This organization is responsible for producing and supporting Bible study curricula for American public schools. The mission statement assures that the curricula are perfectly objective and neutral, and thus in line with the requirements of secular government. I have my doubts, and I’ll demonstrate the source of them.

On the one hand, the page titled Is This Legal? ends with this quote:

It might be well said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literacy and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203,225 (1963)

This is a perfectly admirable quote, and nothing within it betrays an intention to subvert the Establishment Clause. However, the page begins with these words:

There has been a great social regression since the Bible was removed from our schools. We need to refer to the original documents that inspired Americanism and our religious heritage.

These words are manifestly untrue. The US has suffered no such “social regression” (whatever that might mean), and the foundation document of the United States is not the Bible, but the Constitution. The Constitution is the defining statement of Americanism (whatever that might mean), and it carries no mention of God, and mentions religion only to guarantee the free practice (or nonpractice) thereof. If the goal of the NCBCPS is to rewrite history so as to name the Bible the foundation of US culture and religion (ignoring the dozens of other faiths followed by Americans, and those who follow none), then they are no better than the “America was founded as a Christian nation” crowd.

Should US public schools have Bible classes?

May 27, 2008

A course that treats objectively the history and significance of the Bible would be a wonderful idea, and to the best of my knowledge many such classes exist in US public schools.  Whatever religion we follow, much of the cultural references we share come from the Bible, and an understanding of it is vital to an understanding of Western civilization in general.

 There is a fine line to walk, however. Any treatment of the Bible in a public school course must be completely neutral. It must not endorse any part of the Bible as true, particularly not any part that pertains to a statement of religious faith or dogma. The Bible must remain squarely on the sectarian side of Thomas Jefferson’s wall, and teachers in public classrooms must reveal it only through windows of objectivity.

This standard has not always been met. In 2005, the Ector County School Board instituted a course called “The Bible in History and Literature.” The course was not objective, in that it favored the King James Version of the Bible over the countless others used by other denominations, and promoted a particular religious viewpoint. The ACLU challenged the curriculum, and it was overturned in March.

A similar case is brewing in Virginia. The Craig County School Board has approved the implementation of a Bible studies course, one produce by the same organization as that which published the curriculum struck down in the Texas case. As the Texas curriculum was found to violate the establishment clause, the ACLU has determined to investigate the new Virginia course.

The organization responsible for both curricula (which may prove to be the same) is the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. Their mission statement seems innocuous enough, but the ruling in the Texas case demonstrates the need for caution.

There’s no denying the importance of the Bible to Western culture. It forms a large part of the backbone of our shared culture, of the idioms we use in our speech, even of the legends that shape our understanding of our place in the universe (though I feel that last is changing.) For all these reasons an objective Bible Studies course would be a welcome addition to a public school. But his objectivity must be maintained with a restless diligence. The alternative is the loss of church and state separation, and ultimately the loss of freedom of religion.

Benchmark statements for Hovind Scale variables

May 26, 2008

Thanks again to qbsmd for the idea of creating tables that provided examples of statements corresponding to each value of the variables that make up a Hovind factor. Over the next few days I will be compiling such tables in this post, so watch this space!