Sunday, February 25, 2007

Scientific Illiteracy and Its Meaning: 10 Points

SciAm Blog takes on (albeit briefly)the political and cultural factors surrounding scientific illiteracy in America as compared to Europe and Japan and how it affects belief in evolution. Make sure you read the comments, there is some very interesting stuff there as well.

Some points you might want to consider (as succinctly as possible):
1. Scientific illiteracy is no more indicative of hostility to science than illiteracy is indicative of hostility to literature.

2. That 28% of Americans who are scientifically literate enough to follow a science story in the newspaper make up a smaller group than the 45% who accept evolution. If we accept both those that posit a role for G-d in evolution and those who do not, we must accept that even many who accept evolution are scientifically illiterate. If we argue that only those who accept evolution without G-d truly accept evolution, only slightly more than half of scientifically literate Americans accept evolution. Either way, literacy does NOT seem to be the controlling factor in acceptance of evolution.

3. Religion as a whole also cannot be a causitive factor since that 28% who are scientifically literate and that 45% who accept evolution far outnumber the less than 10% of Americans who consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or nonreligious. Even the 15% who accept evolution without G-d outnumber this group and is made up, one can assume, partially from people who follow nontheistic or pantheistic religions.

4. Religious literalism is one possible contributing factor, but literalists make up a very small percentage of the population, one far lower than the 55% who don't accept evolution.

5. Accepting any scientific theory logically requires far more than simple scientific literacy of the kind necessary to follow a science story in the paper. In fact,it requires two things: scientific literacy and scientific knowledge. You must be familiar with all of the evidence and know how to apply scientific methodology to examining, assessing and interpreting that evidence. Otherwise, you are accepting or rejecting evolution for nonrational or perhaps even irrational reasons.

6. Based on all of the above, we can conclude that it's all but guaranteed that many who accept evolution do so for nonrational or irrational reasons, such as acceptance of authority. We can also assume that some who reject evolution may do so for rational reasons based on incomplete knowledge of the evidence or unfamiliarity with scientific methodology. (In the absence of the evidence and proper methodology, reason actually supports a teleological cause as more likely.)

7. Many, many studies have shown that the science curriculum in American public schools (considering the number and type of courses offered and the manner in which the material is presented) is disastrously inadequate. This is even more true as we look back to the level of science education available to older Americans educated before the space race led to a beefing up of the science curriculum, those educated in substandard segregated schools, and the large number of older Americans who did not attend high school due to segregation or economics. (Ironically, that 28% of Americans who accept evolution is about equal to the percentage of Americans who have college degrees.)

8. We can see that substandard science education in public schools is probably the major contributing factor in the "evolution problem" in America, with scientific illiteracy, religious literalism, and some psychological factors acting as minor contributing factors.

9. Neither lack of education nor having received a poor education is an adequate measure of intelligence. First, because even a very smart person relying solely on public education would not get a very good science education. Secondly, we must consider that the same quality of education is not available even to all public school students, with a variety of factors like class, age, race, gender, and geography determining the quality of education available.

10. Focusing on the political mumbo-jumbo of "g-dless science" v. "stupid religion" detracts from our ability to rationally assess the origins of the problem and to find solutions. Extremists on both sides have used this false dichotomy to their benefit, but if we're going to get anywhere, the rest of us will have to abandon the falsehoods that make us feel better about ourselves and face the cold, hard truth that there are good, honest people on both sides who are NOT extremists or idiots or g-dless heathens or (insert your favorite insult here).

Dear Martian Life, Hope This Finds You Dead?

PopSci Blog has a great post on Chris McKay, NASA planetary science, and his argument that it might be better if any Martian life we find is already dead. Interesting idea considering we haven't the foggiest clue what ethical, moral, or scientific conundrums may be raised by a run-in with the locals as we explore the galaxy. I have to say, though, that McKay may be one of the funniest scientists around.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Freedom of Religion: Under Attack?

A Pennsylvania school district is being sued after school officials allegedly informed a student that he would not be able to participate in the school's Halloween parade dressed as Jesus. They also allegedly instructed him to remove the "crown of thorns" from his costume and state that he was dressed as a Roman emperor if asked.

Some people simply don't get the point of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state. The principles of freedom of and yes, freedom from religion were never meant to deny private individuals the right to express their religious beliefs or lack thereof in the public square. In fact, the opposite is true.

As a regular reader and writer of materials dealing with recent controversies over religion and its role in our society, I have often encountered those who believe that religion is a "private" matter, one that should be kept out of the public square. Oddly, this attitude is often linked to political correctness run amok.

Not content to stop at the bounds of constitutional principle and seemingly lacking understanding of and respect for the necessary foundations of liberal society, some have argued that they will only respect a person's right to "pray in his own house" while others have argued for the abolition of religion (an act that, considering the nature of religion and even humanity itself, would ultimately require force). We will leave the latter for another day, but we must ask, "How private is religion supposed to be?"

If we are speaking of religion as a "private" matter in which the government and its agents are not permitted to interfere, religion is private indeed. Originally, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government, so state and local governments were permitted to have official religions. With the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, states became bound by provisions that once applied only to the federal government, including prohibitions against official religions. Since that time, perhaps hundreds of cases have gone before the Supreme Court (the final arbiter of constitutionality). The principles that have been derived from those cases have defined freedom of and from religion as we now know it.

So, public funds cannot be used to support religious activity. Government agents and employees cannot publicly support religious doctrines while acting in their official capacity. Mandatory prayer in schools is outlawed. While public schools may teach about religion, they cannot teach religious doctrines. Religious displays on public property are forbidden. Etc. The government cannot coerce, force, intimidate, or convince any citizen into accepting any religious doctrine nor can it officially endorse any religious belief or lack thereof.

If we are speaking of religion as a "private" matter which individual citizens have no right to express in the public square, religion is not private at all. The right to freedom of and from religion protects the individual's right to express his or her opinions about religious matters as publicly as he or she chooses. We are free to pray in public buildings, to evangelize on public street corners, to display symbols of our faith on our person, and yes to march in school parades dressed like Jesus.

The attitude that we only have to respect a person's right to "pray in his own house" runs counter to the principles of our constitution and the foundations of modern liberal societies. Yes, public displays of religious belief or public attacks on religious belief may make many people uncomfortable. It may downright offend others. But comfort is not now nor should it ever be a limit to human freedoms.

In my humble opinion, this idea that your right to swing your fist ends not at my nose but at the moment that I become uncomfortable or offended is ridiculous, extreme, and authoritarian. It is unfortunate, indeed, that this attitude is linked (tenuously perhaps) to the ideals of political correctness.

Political correctness, at its best, is the voluntary submission to the rules of polite and respectful discourse. We treat others with the respect and dignity they merit as human beings. We refer to groups and individuals by the names which they prefer, eliminating slurs and epithets in our speech. The undue offense and division provoked by hateful and derogatory language and attitudes is conscientiously avoided.

However, political correctness can go too far. From hate speech regulations on college campuses to the condemnation of a politician for using the word "niggardly" beoause it sounds somewhat like a racial epithet to arguments that people should not express their religious or political beliefs in public less they offend someone, the extremes of PC have turned a unifying and liberating tool into a weapon for the authoritarian control of "proper" belief and expression.

Too many feel that they should remain silent rather than be forced to check every single word for every possible offense it may cause to every possible group. Others buck the system, abandoning even the best aspects of political correctness and the respect and dignity they engender in favor of intentionally politically incorrect speech where rebellion against "proper form" is held as evidence of merit. Others still are so careful to pack their language so full of feel-good euphemisms that solid opinions and ideas disappear beneath a cloud of "persons" and "challenged" and "everyone's special" and lots of hyphenated nonsense.

Thus these extremes lead to a muddying of our language and thus our thought, very nearly erradicating the possibility of intelligent, engaging discourse. Public speech waivers between sterile platitudes and virulent diatribes.

And yes, occasionally, as in campus hate speech regulations and this Pennsylvania school's instructions that a student change his costume and (to some extent) hide his religion, PC run amok can lead not just to degraded language and insipid thought but to the actual violation of human rights.

For more on the relationship between language and thought, see George Orwell's Politics and the English Language. For Orwell's take on political correctness (although it was not referred to by that term when the book was written), read 1984 and keep in mind that Newspeak is Orwell's version of PC writ large and the dangers it poses to political thought.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Interesting explanation of the increasing offensiveness of internet discourse.

Some have argued that people aren't saying what they really think. I would argue that anonymity is when we become most truly ourselves. Hence the secret ballot and anonymous peer review that allow people to express their opinions without concern for "consequences". Anonymity is also favored by groups like the Klan, whose members are often prominent citizens who can't afford to be known as Klansmen.

Note the two men who tracked down and assaulted a person with whom one of the men had exchanged insults online. I must admit that during last year's debacle, I feared for my safety, especially after I began receiving multiple hang-up calls a day from untraceable numbers. (For those not familiar, pushing a few buttons on your phone before dialing can make your number untraceable.) Was I paranoid? Or damned lucky? I'm hoping for paranoid.

Can It Happen Here?

Salon has a great column on the growing authoritarianism that threatens the American Republic.

More on this later.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Unflipping Believable!

Some people should NEVER be teachers. This guy should be out of the classroom YESTERDAY. Reminds me of the idiot Louisiana History teacher who gave a lecture on how dirty, savage, stupid, and gullible Native Americans were. Oh, but the look on her face when the school's prize pupil (moi) cut her off. It's just too much. Best wishes for Matthew and his family.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Freedom of Speech

"What's the best way to squelch neonazi hate groups without squelching freedom of speech? It's a conundrum." Reasonably Prudent Poet

It is questions like these that are amongst the most important and most difficult ones faced by those of us who defend free speech absolutism. Free speech absolutism means that beyond certain specific, narrowly defined exceptions (false advertising, fraud, conspiracy, slander, libel, shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre, etc.), speech should remain completely unregulated. No law should be passed to forbid any type of political, religiious, artistic, or personal expression. When a state agency grants support to one stance on an issue (such as the library in the previous post), it cannot then deny support to an opposing viewpoint. (Disclaimers stating that the variety of viewpoints provided do not necessarily reflect those of the institution should be properly displayed with all exhibits, not just the religious ones.) This stands even if some type of expression is patently offensive to our sensibilities in either form or content.

So, yes, we must defend even the Neonazis' right to speak, but does this mean we are helpless against them? No. We may not be able to stop them from speaking but we can stop them from acting to some extent. Most police jurisdictions and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have teams that monitor Neonazi and other paramilitary groups. When these groups begin to plan specific illegal actions, members can then be arrested for conspiracy to commit X crime, whatever that crime may be. Other actions related with hate groups are illegal regardless of speech content, such as defacing a building with graffiti or harassing someone. If they are successful in carrying out illegal activities, the full force of the law stands ready.

Surely, it would be easier if we could forbid them to congregate, form associations, march, publish, etc.? Actually, I don't think so. First, we'd have to assume they'd actually obey the law. Not likely. Second, we have to assume that people will think, "Oh. I'm not allowed to say that. It's bad. So, I won't think it or act on it." Again, not likely. Third, in addition to violating the principles of freedom of speech, such laws could actually make things worse.

There are two practical truths that support free speech absolutism: Those who are silenced take action. That which is forbidden is often more appealing than it would have been otherwise.

Silencing the Neonazis (while preserving our right to condemn what they hold sacred) will only add to their sense of "oppression" and thus their sense of the "righteousness" of their cause. Will they not act upon their sense of righteous victimhood? Think of the Danish cartoon controversy. In the Western press, this controversy was framed along the lines of the forces of Islamic radicalism v. the Western ideal of freedom of speech. In Denmark, however, as in much of Europe, free speech is not absolute. A variety of laws criminalize certain types of expression: hate speech, the display of Nazi symbols, and Holocaust denial, for instance. This double standard makes a mockery of claims of free speech idealism and contributes to the Muslim extremist's sense of victimhood and righteousness. The people of Europe could not credibly argue that they permit the publication of cartoons offensive to Muslims solely on free speech grounds when speech offensive to Jewish and European sensibilities is forbidden by law. It becomes obvious that this contributed to the severity of the response when we consider that Holocaust denial laws were cited by those inciting the riots. (On a related note, these laws have also been cited by those who incite anti-Semitic hatred throughout the world, including attendees at the Holocaust denial conference held by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conference ironically attended by Jews. We can say here that Holocaust denial laws made allies of people who would have been natural enemies otherwise and have weakened our position rather than strengthened it.)

The age old cry of charlatans and extremists: They silence me because they know I speak a truth which sheds light on their lies! The taboo is very appealing is it not? From sex to drugs to rock and roll to the newest "miracle" cures the medical establishment doesn't want you to know about, the forbidden draws our attention and provides enormous temptation. How often do we justify breaking taboos by condeming those who would deprive us of their pleasures or their truth? The Man just doesn't want us to have a good time. The Man just doesn't want us to rip back the curtain to reveal that he's not really the Wizard of Oz. The Man doesn't want us to know that Oreos cure cancer because he gets rich off chemotherapy. The Man doesn't want you to know that the Holocaust never happened because he's secretly controlled by the worldwide Zionist conspiracy! Ridiculous? Probably. Dangerous? Absolutely.

Our only hope, other than bugging Neonazi offices, is to add our own voices to the marketplace of ideas, to make what we offer more appealing than the drivel oozing from the slimy charlatans and extremists of the world. At times, this seems like trying to make broccoli more appealing than chocolate, but it is not as hopeless as all that. So many bad ideas have met their end in the marketplace. Surely, a few more can join them in the dustbin of history.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Free Speech Moment

In my last post, Reasonably Prudent Poet asked a question concerning freedom of speech and Holocaust denial that will be the subject of an upcoming post. This has since come to my attention. I'll be posting about both soon.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Elie Wiesel Attacked in San Francisco

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author, was attacked recently by a holocaust denier who claims that he had been stalking Wiesel for some time. The perpetrator then bragged about the attack on an anti-semitic website.

Words fail me at the moment.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Real Men: Revisited

This is an old article but well worth commenting on.
In August 2006, The Daily Mail had Nirpal Dhaliwal, the apparently pathetic husband of Liz Jones, prattling on about how much of a man he is. So much of a "man" that he belittles his wife publicly, cheats on her, willfully ignores her needs, and psychologically abuses her. This while he's living on her largesse. So much of a "man" that he needs to tell everyone in lurid detail how he banged his wife last night. (Trust me. Read the description. That is NOT making love or having sex. It's a pathetic little boy trying to play at being a man.) As a true feminist, I am unbelievably offended not by how Dhaliwal presents women (It's hard to be offended by a pathetic child's ramblings on a subject he obviously understands so poorly.) but by how he presents men.

Feminism is, in its essense, the pursuit of gender equality. I could not consider myself a feminist if I did not consider myself the equal to any man in the human sense, in the sense of our inherent value and dignity as human beings. (Surely, there are men who are my betters in a variety of fields as there are women who are my betters in a variety of fields. But in humanity, we are equal.) In the same vein, I would not dare call myself a feminist if I did not consider men to be equal to women. Honestly, the matriarchy obsession amongst some so-called feminists sickens me.

It is my belief in the inherent worth of men that elicits my rage when I encounter the likes of Dhaliwal or when I contemplate the most anti-woman ideologies that men like him perpetuate. Men like Dhaliwal and the ideologies they uphold demean women, this is true. But no less so, they demean men.

When they argue that a man needs to demean, belittle, ignore, control, or dominate women to feel good about himself, they argue that men are children. When they argue that the "gold standard" of manhood is the ability to dominate a woman by wielding his penis as a weapon, they argue that men are animals. When they argue that expectations of responsibility, accountability and common human decency are "unfair" weapons of mean women who want to take their manhood away, they make of men both children and animals.

Honestly, can anyone read Dhaliwal's writings without thinking of a sniveling child stomping his feet and insisting that he is too Superman? Can you read his writings without thinking of some primitive, mindless ape demonstrating his dominance by making loud noises and displaying his penis? This is not manhood for this is not full mature humanity.

That women like Liz Jones permit and even reward this behavior on occasion is sickening. "Boys will be boys," they say. "What can you expect from a man?" they ask. Those statements alone infuriate me. Excusing immature behavior with the same nonchalance as one would excuse the dog piddling on the carpet is pathetic and demeaning. You should surely expect more from a human being than you would expect from the dog.

You should expect that a human being, having reached maturity, will act as a mature human being with respect for not only their own inherent value but also for the inherent dignity of others. You should expect that the higher virtues of mind and spirit be developed conscientiously through long thought and repeated practice. You should expect that a fully functional adult human being rise above the level of a child or animal. You should expect these things from men no less and no more than you should expect them from women. Anything less is anti-feminist and anti-human.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Just Don't Inhale

George W. Bush wants you to do drugs. Why else would he propose an increased in spending for an "anti-drug" ad campaign that the GAO reports has a.) not decreased drug use and b.) may have actually increased drug use amongst some teens?

Wait. Never mind. This is George W. Bush. He probably thinks it'll be good for the "war on terra'ism". Get the Muslim radicals a little high on ganja and they'll be too mellow to attack anything but the pantry.

Or they'll be too busy looking up Surah 4:20, which states:
[4:20] If you wish to marry another wife, in place of your present wife, and you had given any of them a great deal, you shall not take back anything you had given her. Would you take it fraudulently, maliciously, and sinfully?

Duuuuuuuuude! So, I can't get my ring back. Bummer.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Take Me To Your Leader. Buuuuuurrrrrrrp!

Russians eat alien. Discuss.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Brokeback Mutton: In Defense of Science

Slate has an interesting piece on research into gay rams being carried out at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station and left-wing protests against the research, led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and gay/animal activists like Martina Navratilova. The research, which has demonstrated that gay rams are born light in the hooves and that straight fetal lambs can't be "converted," has sparked tremendous controversy.

As usual with scientific issues that tread too closely to interests or ideology, the facts of the case have been greatly exaggerated. The moral/ethical quandaries and extreme anxiety these types of studies raise within the gay community, however, haven't been exaggerated much at all.

The shadows of eugenics and biological determinism loom large over the gay community. Studies like this one, to some extent our best hope, are met with the kind of militant resistance that can only be born of the darkest fear. The question that arises every time scientists broach the subject of the biological origins of homosexuality is "Will they use it to hurt us?"

It isn't, unfortunately, an irrational question. The history of homosexuality is wrought with dozens of ill-conceived "scientific cures" for homosexuality--from lobotomy to aversion therapy, from shock treatments to hormone injections. (Even now, many so-called "medical" professionals promote the latest miracle path to ex-gaydom.) The history of the past century is filled with both the most horrific and perhaps the most mundane applications of eugenics--from the Holocaust to designer babies, from choosing who will be allowed to reproduce to choosing the gender of your unborn child. And let us not forget the fruits of biological determinism, the complete subjugation of women and racial minorities. It is, in the end, completely rational to wonder what advanced knowledge of the biological origins of sexual orientation will mean in the hands of those who hate us.

But do we do ourselves and the world any service by attempting to preserve its ignorance? Are we willing to forego the potential benefits of this knowledge? Let's look at some pros and cons.

*They could find a way to "fix" fetuses' sexual orientation. (So, we'll just find a way to make sure that ALL of OUR children are born gay.)
*They will treat us as diseased. (Nothing new there.)
*They'll kill us all. (Highly unlikely but more likely if we aren't "born that way.")

*People who see homosexuality as a choice will have to face the truth. (Most of them, anyway.)
*Acceptance of homosexuality will spread.
*Gay people who have difficulty dealing with their sexual orientation may get the help they need to cope with their identities rather than the "miracle cure" of the week from the homophobes.
*Proof of the innate nature of homosexuality will strengthen our case in fighting for legal rights for gay people.
*It'll really piss off Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, George W. Bush, etc.
* We will know....

The knowledge alone is worth whatever due vigilance will be needed to stave off the forces of darkness. The search for knowledge can't simply stop every time we get a little uncomfortable nor should it. Yes, science should be tempered by ethics and a clear understanding of the consequences of knowledge but it should not be smothered by them. And let us not forget that if we succeed in stopping progress, we are no better than those who've tried to stop us.

To my fellow LGBT Americans: Attempting to forever shroud ourselves in this mystery will cost more in the long run that simply letting it out, loud and proud. Aren't we the ones, after all, who blew open the closet door? Didn't we invent coming out? Would any of the accomplishments of the last few decades have been possible without the pursuit of and sharing of knowledge? Yes. Yes. And Hell no!

So, calm down. Breathe deeply. And just say it. "My name is Melinda and I was born a homosexual! Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa..."

Author's note: I'm not sure if this is as well written as it should be, so forgive me. Melinda is very sleepy. Bed now. Goodnight.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Yes, That Again!

Marginal Utility on Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Wired Magazine's take on "extreme" atheism.

Evolution v. Creation: Recap

So, it's not just me. It's always interesting to see the ideas I come up with independently confirmed by respected scholars. Pete Rollins has a piece on his blog that takes a deeper look into the basis for much of what I've argued here on Liberals in Exile.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Every Nerd's Dream

She's young, attractive, able to disprove one of Darwin's century-old theories, and not afraid to get her hands dirty. Kelly Dorgan is, hands down the winner of L.I.E.'s first Science Hottie Award.

Runnner Up: Melody Swartz, the woman poised to make lab-grown organs a reality.

There's also eye candy for you guy-loving types in Pop-Sci's Fifth Annual Brilliant 10.

Molly Ivins: Rest In Peace

How do you pay tribute to the woman who determined your destiny?

Way back in high school, when the military and the ministry were my future, my fourth year English teacher responded to one of my assigned journal entries by telling me that I may very well be the next Molly Ivins. With those words in my head, I sought out Ms. Ivins' work and consumed it voraciously. I decided then that if I could come even close to being the "next Molly Ivins," then I had to go for it. Thus, a journalist was born.

More than a decade later, as I mourn Molly's passing, I can't help but reflect on those words: the next Molly Ivins. I wasn't certain then if I was worthy of that compliment. I know now that I am not. But for the remainder of my career, I will stand gratefully in her shadow.

Molly, from one crazy Southern broad to another, thank you and rest in peace.