Saturday, December 30, 2006

National Park Service Refuses To Tell The Public How Old the Grand Canyon Is

PEER (Public Employees for Envronmental Responsibility) has an update on the continuing effort to change geological science so that it better fits with a biblical (Iron Age) worldview. If you remember, the controversy began in 2004 with the proposed sale of a creationist book at the visitor center that describes the Grand Canyon as having been carved out by Noah's Flood. Of course professionals who conduct actual geologic research protested, but to little avail, other than the Park Service said it would review its decision. Now, from the new headlines:

HOW OLD IS THE GRAND CANYON? PARK SERVICE WON’T SAY — Orders to Cater to Creationists Makes National Park Agnostic on Geology

And from the introduction:

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Bear in mind, this is the ONLY way creationists can gain acceptance for ludicrous ideas that have absolutely no scientific backing: it will have to be legislated so that everyone must follow this idea or else. PEER's Executive Director says it best:

“In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is ‘no comment.’”

Park officials have completely aborted their responsibilities to promote quality education and present the best science available. Instead they cower to fundamentalism and promote fairy tales as fact. In doing so, they have made a mockery of the National Park Service regulations (from the 2005 NPS Director's Order #6 on Interpretation, ironically approved after the creationist book went on sale):

8.4.2 Historical and Scientific Research. Superintendents, historians, scientists, and interpretive staff are responsible for ensuring that park interpretive and educational programs and media are accurate and reflect current scholarship…Questions often arise round the presentation of geological, biological, and evolutionary processes. The interpretive and educational treatment used to explain the natural processes and history of the Earth must be based on the best scientific evidence available, as found in scholarly sources that have stood the test of scientific peer review and criticism. The facts, theories, and interpretations to be used will reflect the thinking of the scientific community in such fields as biology, geology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and paleontology. Interpretive and educational programs must refrain from appearing to endorse religious beliefs explaining natural processes. Programs, however, may acknowledge or explain other explanations of natural processes and events. (Emphasis added)

Well, they missed implementing this regulation by a long shot. The book is neither written by anyone within the "scientific community", nor was it "peer-reviewed", nor does it represent the "best scientific evidence available". The larger question, however, (and as implied by the PEER article) is whether officials and park interpreters are actually allowed to public discuss the scientific evidence for the age of the Grand Canyon. If not, I would have hoped that a minor rebellion had ensued at the office. As a government employee for the Forest Service who is also responsible for interpretive materials on our forest, I would be going ballistic if I were told not to discuss scientific facts on the prehistory of the forest. Understandibly, there are jobs at stake (again, creationists need to threaten people's livelihoods to get their message across - it has no integrity of its own), but somebody at the local level must be ignoring such directives if they do in fact exist.

Friday, December 29, 2006

In Non-Belief More Prevalent Among Social Scientists?: Some Comments on the Harris/Prager Debate

In an online debate with conservative talk-show host, Dennis Prager, Sam Harris responds to Prager in the context of a discussion on the prevalence of belief in God among scientists:

An article in Nature recently reported that no scientists doubt the existence of God more than biologists, followed closely by physicists and astronomers. I’m not aware of the data you cite on social scientists, but if it is as you report, and they are more atheistic still, it would not surprise me. After all, these people spend a lot of time thinking about things like self-deception, wishful thinking, cognitive biases, and the other enemies of intellectual honesty that keep religion in such good standing in our society.

Prager specifically wrote the following:

My point remains valid, as you graciously concede. Scientific knowledge hardly invalidates belief that there is a God. On the contrary, there are more believers in God in the natural sciences than in the social sciences. This suggests that it is the virtual absence of God in education, not knowledge of science, that likely accounts for the atheism of academics.

Given that anthropology in general and archaeology specifically are considered “social sciences” and that my professional experience and training are in both, allow me to comment. First, I do not know that social scientists are less likely to believe in God than natural or physical scientists. Prager threw that out there without any data to back it up and so it remains nothing more than personal opinion. Secondly, I do not know what Prager is implying here. It almost seems as though he considers “social sciences” as non-scientific relative to the natural sciences and that therefore the supposed absence of belief among the former must be the result of a general state of education and not familiarity with science. I don’t know if that is what he means, but if so, the argument is completely fallacious. I spend significant time in my Anthropology class dispelling this mythical dichotomy between the “hard” sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) and the “soft” sciences (biology, anthropology, etc.). Most of the social science disciplines are as equally versed in the methods and philosophy of scientific investigation as their “hard” science counterparts and so I reject the notion that scientific literacy has something to do with differences Prager perceives. Nonetheless, his suggestion that there may be fewer “believers” among social scientists than natural scientists deserves further exploration. Harris documents some good reasons for why he thinks a greater prevalence of non-belief among social scientists might not be surprising: these people concern themselves with the all-too-human characteristics of “…self-deception, wishful thinking, cognitive biases, and the other enemies of intellectual honesty”. Certainly, the human propensity to deceive other humans for purposes of gaining political (i.e. religious) power combined with the evolutionary establishment of humans as pattern-seeking primates (hence, being willingly deceived) is a common theme throughout history.

But there are other historical observations that can be added to this mix by those of us who study the past. Archaeology has shown that the number of gods and deities (and their attentive human populations) that have fallen wayside over the millennia are legion. There is some historical substance to Dawkins’ claim that all of us are really atheists in the context of the multitude of gods who have come before – he and others just choose to go one god further. Humans have changed the nature and beliefs about their gods so often that it is mind-boggling. What makes the current iterations any different than those that have come before? In addition, once writing was established we know that these “religions” all found justification in ancient texts, described as divinely inspired for those who bought into whatever version was being offered at the time. It is hard to fathom the smorgasbord of religions, no different in substance or justification than the current suite, that have come and gone through the ages.

As anthropologists most of us have also witnessed first hand the despicable behavior of missionaries bringing the “word of god” to indigenous cultures. We have certainly familiarized ourselves with the numerous historical accounts of missionaries spreading religion by force, be it the Hittite invasion of the middle east, Boer occupation of South Africa, Cortez and the Spanish friars brutalizing the Aztec people, or Native Californians enduring the mission “concentration camps” (which, by the way, is how most Native American friends of mine describe them). It is difficult to buy into a just god who would tolerate such behavior from his messengers. When you look at history, it is really difficult to envision any religion that wasn’t ultimately used to further economic and political gain among a small proportion of its advocates.

Given this I can certainly understand why social scientists may exhibit a higher proportion of non-belief, although again, I have seen no statistics to suggest this may be the case. But another question arises. What is meant by “non-belief”? Prager and other religious conservatives equate belief directly with church attendance – anyone not “active” in a religious institution is effectively an atheist. My anecdotal experience would suggest that this is probably the case among social scientists I know: almost none actively or regularly participate in religious organizations. Or are we talking non-belief in religion as an institution? I would argue that “spirituality” is not the same as “religion” – this is a distinction we have ingrained in our children. If this is the case, I would certainly argue that most of my colleagues pursue spirituality in any number of ways, none of which involve regular church attendance.

I am sure this is not a satisfying answer to Prager and other religious conservatives who prefer allegiance to religious institutions. In fact, I would bet that Islamic fundamentalists are held in higher regard among the “religiously active” than those who seek spiritual enlightenment along other paths – after all, at least Muslims suicide bombers go to church regularly!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Discovering Sam Harris

Sam Harris has become one of my favorite authors. Although my personal views are somewhat at variance from his, I fundamentally agree with his thesis that faith (in particular, faith that is publicly acknowledged and governmentally sanctioned) poses a serious and significant threat to the future existence of world civilization, especially the current iteration of it in this corner of the plant that we call "American". In this sense, I think Harris has something much different to offer than Dawkins' mere atheism. Don't get me wrong, I still adore Dawkins as a writer and a scientist. However, he was recently described as an "evangelistic atheist", in the sense that he has a point of view he wishes to spread to others, and I believe this particular moniker fits quite well. Harris, on the other hand, suggests that faith in omnipotent beings is not just foolish - it is downright dangerous. And he does not single out Christianity as the pivotal culprit in all this. On the contrary, he is very hard (and in my opinion, correctly so) on other faiths. Of the Islamic "faith" he writes the following in a fascinating exchange with conservative talk show host Dennis Prager:

And yet, while the religious divisions in our world are self-evident, many people still imagine that religious conflict is always caused by a lack of education, by poverty, or by politics. Yet the September 11th hijackers were college-educated, middle-class, and had no discernible experience of political oppression. They did, however, spend a remarkable amount of time at their local mosques talking about the depravity of infidels and about the pleasures that await martyrs in Paradise.

How many more architects and mechanical engineers must hit the wall at 400 miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not merely a matter of education, poverty, or politics? The truth, astonishingly enough, is that in the year 2006 a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and moderates have been very slow to understand this. The cause of their confusion is simple: They don’t know what it is like to really believe in God.

There is another problem here, of a particularly American nature, that I believe largely hamstrings our efforts to "defeat" Islamic fundamentalism. We are not willing to go the distance and realistically discuss world terrorism as a consequence of religious faith, focusing instead on the particular Islamist variety that currently plagues us. Ultimately we simply seek to replace one religious dogma with another. Both, however, are the current extensions of Iron Age mythology and both ultimately will result in fanciful excuses to first, limit people's rights to make their own choices; second, begin to require allegience to a particular god and its spokesmen; and eventually begin to demand the death of those who do not believe appropriately. The processes are the same and have been repeated throughout history ad nauseum. Only the name of the religion changes.

Harris' broader message I think is clear: society's best hope lies with secularism, not religious fundamentalism.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Hats Off to UPS and FEDEX

Hey, I just want to give a "hats off" to all the UPS and FEDEX employees who must be working their butts off at this time of year. I was just tracking some items I ordered and noticed that several are probably going to arrive today, just in time for Christmas. These were things that I really didn't need in time for Christmas. The UPS and FEDEX folks don't know that but it seems obvious from the time schedules on the tracking that they're assuming everything is needed for Christmas and are working hard to make it so...

So, give these folks a hearty "Happy Holidays" when you seen them and thank them for the effort. You may not get it when you want, but it's not for lack of trying! (My advice is to order earlier next year!).

What Intelligent Design Can Achieve

Intelligent Design advocates are getting desperate. They have no research; they have no data; they have no hypotheses; they have nothing to do with science. As I have said before, the best intelligent design can currently achieve is front runner of a prima donna popularity contest among the scientifically illiterate. However, when they start to loose even that avenue, anything apparently goes. They seem very capable of resorting to personal attacks quite effectively, as the examples here, here, and here demonstrate. They are also pretty good at creating martyrs.

John Lynch and Ed Brayton sum up the "Year in Review" for intelligent design advocates. It consists largely of court defeats and political campaign losses. Ed has a good overview:

A. The one state where they had actually been successful in getting their "critical analysis" strategy into the curriculum, Ohio, has completely reversed itself, and it did so explicitly as a result of the Dover ruling. Gov. Taft asked the state board of education to reconsider the policy in light of the Dover ruling and they voted it out.

B. On top of that, the voters then voted out the most prominent ID advocates on the board of education, including the DI's most reliable mouthpiece, Deborah Owens Fink.

C. The only other state where the IDers had managed to take control of a board of education, Kansas, again voted out the ID advocates, and will now reverse the changes in the science standards before they could even be implemented.

D. The Cobb County case got settled, again because of the Dover ruling. Once Eric Rothschild and the legal team from the Dover case got involved, the school board quickly decided to cut their losses and settle the case.

E. Attempts to get ID into schools in one form or another failed all across the country, including here in Michigan where the IDers tried about 3 different ways to do it. And their pro-ID governor candidate lost badly.

So, everywhere Intelligent Design or Creationism was introduced at the local level, the efforts were eventually defeated. As in the case with Dover, this usually came at a huge cost to school districts that can ill afford such expensive forays into non-science simply to appease a small proportion of the population that wants to win the popularity contest. Now, ID/Creationist advocates are nothing if not persistent, so this will not be the last time we have to confront such illogical efforts to change the nature of science as it is taught in schools. Small, rural communities in particular often seem to think they are culturally monolithic and can get away with such shenanigans unscathed. They can't.

I'll just let that hang in the air around here....

Friday, December 22, 2006

On Wisconsin Letters About Science and Evolution

The Summer 2006 issue of my alumni magazine On Wisconsin, lead with a story about evolution and intelligent design entitled Putting Faith in Science. The following Fall issue published a large number of Letters to the Editor in response. There were many letters in support of intelligent design, all of which quoted the same mischaracterizations of evolution, the same fake evidence provided by ID advocates, and the same claims of scientific dispute over evolution that Johnson, Behe, Dembski, and others have offered time and again and which have been thoroughly corrected, demonstrated and debunked ad nauseum. I was somewhat taken aback that so many graduates of such a fine science-oriented university as Wisconsin would so blithely consider ID as valid science. I was gratified to see, however, a letter in the current Winter issue that, again, strikes to the inherint error in these responses:

Perhaps the greatest fallacy in these letters is the repeated assertion that science cannot properly support the idea of evolution, and that scientists are at odds over the question of whether evolution occurred. The reality is this. The peer-reviewed scientific literature generates approximately 1.4 million papers every year, with many of them either providing new substance to the theory of evolution or relying on that theory to provide the context for important new discoveries.

The geological record, the fossil record, the record of change in the genome of every organism, every aspect of modern biology fits together to provide evolution as one of the most compelling and exciting facts ever uncovered by science. There remain robust debates in scientific circles about new mechanisms of evolution and continued efforts to fill in gaps in the records. However, the general idea that extant living organisms evolved over billions of years with shared ancestry was settled many decades ago. To suggest that there is a scientific controversy about whether evolution occurred is simply nonsense.

We do see Intelligent Design (and whatever it evolves into after the Dover decision) as a threat to science education. The future of science in this country depends on sensible people seeing through the ID charade.

This is an abbreviated version of the letter that appeared in the current issue of On Wisconsin. You can go here to see the full version (signed by forty-three professors, scientists and faculty from the UW system).

Can Christians Be Conservationists Without Science?

Red State Rabble is reporting an Ashville Citizen Times article discussion on the growing number of evangelical Christians who are becoming active environmentalists. I remain significantly dubious about Christians as Conservationists. It is not that I wouldn't welcome such a significant political bloc to the cause of environmental conservation (environmentalism could really use the muscle); it's that I doubt the level of commitment. Too many of our most critical environmental issues derive from a science that evangelicals almost wholly reject and would require economic lifestyle changes of such magnitude that the conservative Christians would never stand for it. Michael Caddell comments on the story at Red State Rabble and hits one of the major issues right on the mark:

Yada, Yada, yeah it's a good thing handing out low energy light bulbs and setting up aluminum can recycling trash bins in the parking lot, but it's a far far cry from what needs to be done nationwide...Try federalizing the automotive industries; forcing hybrids or electrical cars into mass production, defunding the Pentagon for funding village by village wind, solar electrification projects and watch those tongue talking, wailing "pro-lifers" scream for blood, flags and guns against the encroachment on their grossly indulgent, cluttered life-styles.

As did David Orr in several pieces from Conservation Biology last year, which I commented on previously (see above). Even if some evangelicals see environmentalism as God's calling, they are far outnumbered by conservative Christians who see no problem in wedding economic gain with their own biblical interpretations:

…by becoming an active political force on the extreme right wing of U.S. politics, conservative evangelicals have made an unholy alliance with the vendors of fossil fuels, climate changers, polluters, sellers of weapons, the military, imperialists, exploiters, political dirty tricksters who assume that the ends they’ve chosen justify whatever means they use, spin artists, those willing to corrupt scientific truth for political gain, and those for whom law and the Constitution are merely scraps of paper…But against the example of Jesus who refused to be tempted by the prospect of holding political power, conservative evangelicals are now complicit with the political forces sweeping us toward more terrible violence and the avoidable catastrophes of climate change and ecological ruin.

But additionally troubling for me is that there is no recognition of environmental science underpinning this so-called "green" movement of conservative Christians. The Ashville Citizen Times articles quotes the Rev. Austin Rios as saying “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in creation or evolution, caring for the Earth is something we agree is right." I'm sorry, but it does matter, particularly if you want to tackle environmental problems beyond simply replacing energy efficient light bulbs. From my previous post, Christians as Conservationists:

There is another problem I have with the concept of conservative Christian conservationists. None of the respondents to Orr’s article defended science as the means for identifying and implementing conservation efforts and environmental protection. Turning back to the current National Parks article, Peter Illyn writes the following:

My faith tradition teaches that humans are unique in all of God’s creation—only we are made in the image of God, and we alone have the divinely given capacity of self-awareness and of free-will. We alone create art and music, build tools, and construct language. Humanity has an exceptional place in the created order, but we seem to have forgotten that we were created last and designed by God not to be independent of the rest of creation. We were made from the dust of the Earth, we are still connected to the Earth, and we will return to the Earth. This is the epiphany of interconnectedness.

If Illyn invokes this as a religious metaphor, that’s great…but the view does nothing to aid in conservation goals. If it is intended to a statement of science, then we have serious problems that really lie at the heart of differences between science and religion for approaching environmental preservation and sustainability. Our “interconnectedness” with the rest of the earth is rooted in our shared evolutionary history and ecological relationships with every aspect of every ecosystem across the planet. Humans may have the cognitive ability to create oral, written and artistic facades of uniqueness that serve to convince us of a special position within the hierarchy of life, but we are still ecological beings. We suffer from pandemics of disease; we must find and use resources and structure our social lives around those resources; when those run out, we must find more; we must compete, fend off attacks, raise our young to compete in the world and successfully raise their own offspring. And, a la Eric Pianka, we are as subject to vagaries of population pressure as bacteria in a Petri dish. Our archaeological past tells us that the human species has survived only because technology mediated its effect upon us or increased the efficiency with which we extract resources. But technology has not altered fundamental principles of competition, resource extraction and depletion, reproduction…or mortality. Technology has only changed the scale at which humans function within ecosystems. And make no mistake…along the way, there have been casualties, lots of casualties. The archaeological record is replete with extinct civilizations (it’s what keeps us archaeologists in business!)…most of whom exhibited “faith” in some kind of god or deity. But extinction ignores religion.

I would also add that archaeology is now suggesting that many of those civilizations collapsed from environmental degradation, most probably because they had "faith" that their gods would provide for them or return to take them to a better way of life. True conservation needs to be rooted in science. Evolutionary science. Without that, it doesn't really matter how many light bulbs you change.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Catholic Defends Marriage by Assaulting Woman

Dispatches reports on violence against a counter demonstrator at an anti-gay marriage rally:

Sarah Loy, 27, of Worcester was holding a sign in defense of same-sex marriage amid a sea of green "Let the People Vote" signs when Larry Cirignano of Canton, who heads the Catholic Citizenship group, ran into the crowd, grabbed her by both shoulders and told her, "You need to get out. You need to get out of here right now." Mr. Cirignano then pushed her to the ground, her head slamming against the concrete sidewalk.

As Ms. Loy lay motionless on the ground, crying, Mr. Cirignano ran back behind the lectern, where moments before he had opened the afternoon rally by leading a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ed then makes one of the most on-target commentaries I have ever read about the whole event:

I'd love to see the schedule for this event.

12:45 Recite pledge of allegiance in the name of God to a country that guarantees freedom of speech for all citizens.

12:47 Throw a woman to the ground and give her a concussion for actually practicing that freedom of speech

12:49 Praise God for giving us the strength to cause concussions in said woman.

Believe me, I would loved to have been holding that sign when Cirignano made his move - he would still be seeing stars. But it sounds like this guy wouldn't have had the guts to aggressively approach anyone but a woman anyway.

Unfortunately, I wonder if this isn't becoming the norm for pro-Catholic advocates - again, this is one of the major reasons I left Catholicism: the Catholics I grew up with would not have tolerated this man within the church - now, it seems they not only tolerate, but welcome this kind of sick reaction to someone they disagree with. Cirignano should not only be arrested and jailed for assault and battery, he ought to be excommunicated by the church for representing Catholicism in such a violent manner. But I bet he gives handsomely to the church, so we know that isn't going to happen.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ah, the Shame...

Afarensis shamed me into it (even though I'm not part of the ScienceBlogger cadre)...actually, I think it was the threat of a Holiday haunting...

Here it is...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Lassen County Times Starts Proselytizing Again

Our local newspaper has been relatively quiet since the furor over an editorial bashing teachers as lazy in mid-September. It has largely functioned as a provincial newspaper should, sticking to reporting on local events, weather, Friday's football game highlights, etc. Unfortunately, the holiday season brings out the religiously inane, and the staff at the Lassen County Times cannot keep away from their pompous proselytizing for too long. So in last week's paper we have a full page article on the missionary exploits of a local pastor to the Ukraine. Of course this is not enough, and the byline indicates that this is only the first of two-part series to which we will be treated. I can hardly wait!

Three things really bother me about this article. First, everyone who reads my blog knows that have a serious disdain for most missionaries and the concept of missionary work. I don't see a lot of difference between the "missionary" work of Fernando Cortez in the 16th century and the goals of today's missionary cadre. More subtle perhaps, but the goal (destruction of native or traditional culture) is still the same. Second, the local pastor responsible for this Susanville-Ukraine connection, Mike Cornelison, gives us the usual "God wants me to do it" excuse for just about everything: God planned his family moves, God picked the poor people of the Ukraine for Cornelison to minister to, God "has been planning" the Susanville-Ukraine connection for years (apparently omnipotent deities have to operate within the same planning timeframes as us poor Homo sapiens) - I'll bet Cornelison thinks it's God and not his bladder that forces him to the bathroom every once in a while. But all of this isn't really the issue. If anything, the article once again proves to the thinking individual that missionary work is only possible among those at the lowest levels of the economic and educational ladder. But what I'd really like to explore is why the good taxpaying people of California are being forced to pay for Cornelison's playtime. According to the paper, Cornelison "retired" from the California Correctional Center (one of our local prisons) because of an injured back. Now, I often hesitate to criticize correctional center officers (and I recognize that the CCC is different from the adjacent High Desert State Prison) in public, in large part because I know several good officers who clearly have a difficult job (one that you couldn't pay me enough to do!) and I don't wish to lump them into a generalization. But enough is enough and the majority of prison guards generally have some common behavioral baggage. The fact is that I can't think of another job on the earth that gives someone such a high salary for so little education as a prison guard. I also don't know a group of people who express as much arrogance and disdain for almost everyone else in society without considering that their own societal "worth" is not too many rungs above the people on the other side of the bars. We academics might be arrogant from time to time, but at least we have something to back it up. And no one has a disability program like correctional officers. I personally think it borders on fraud as every "disabled" officer I know is getting loads of money from the State of California (at taxpayer expense) and has questionable injuries. At minimum they could be doing some other kind of work within the correctional system. And they have the gall to complain that public school systems are too expensive! Unfortunately the correctional officers union is too large for the assembly to tackle, although I understand there have been attempts. Because it is fraud, wasteful and we're paying for it. In picture accompanying the article in the paper, Cornelison is sitting on table, smiling happily after one of his many excursions to the Ukraine since his "back injury". I wonder if God directed him to fleece the rest of us here in California in order to carry out his mission?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sorry For The Long Absence

My apologies for the long absence. I ended up taking another detail as District Ranger and have just returned full time to my normal duties in the office. While the detail work is a great experience, it is clear that to do it full time would mean giving up a lot of the extra-office work in the community, with schools, etc. that I really enjoy. Not to mention there's absolutely no time to conduct any kind of research. I'm just not ready to give that up and head out on another career path at this point.

However, I can't blame my absence on the detail alone. I was also trying to teach class, finish and submit an NSF grant, complete two presentations and travel a bit. All of which I'll blog about in the next couple of days.