Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Atheists For The Second Amendment?

There has been much rancor, as is usually the case, over the Supreme Court's decision to hear arguments regarding the Second Amendment. I have a confession to make to all my liberal activist buddies out there in the blogosphere:

I am a lifetime member of of the National Rifle Association. (There...I said it....I feel so much better!)...

Now, in all honesty, I have not received any material from them (including the monthly issue of the American Rifleman) for more than a decade now. (I got really annoyed with the NRA when they started referring to ATF agents as "jack-booted thugs" during the whole David Koresh thing at Waco in the early 1990s and quit sending in "change of address" notifications whenever we would move. I had just joined the federal service at that time and was not amused with the whole anti-government crowd - they always struck me as bunch of cry babies who thought the rules of a civilized society didn't apply to them. By the way, and for the record: David Koresh was a coward and that bastard should have burned - the full extent of his cowardice was revealed when he took innocents along with him).

My general indifference to being a member of the NRA not withstanding, I still support the concept of the Second Amendment. I believe there is social value in a citizenry that remains mostly armed - it does give governments pause; and I believe it is one of the few things that keeps our form of government uniquely different from others around the world. I think most of the objections to personal ownership of firearms stem from unfamiliarity with dangerous weapons. I grew up with firearms of all kinds and am as comfortable with them as I am with a knife and fork around my Thanksgiving turkey. I made the Expert rating in rifle competition and just missed the Distinguished Expert medal (my college career interrupted my competitive rifle shooting). (So, in reference to my correctional officer debating partner: I have all those skills plus a doctorate...think about that for a moment!). In effect, I am generally in favor of the armed citizen (note: not just the hunting citizen) and am hopeful that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of a personal right to own and bear arms (yes, I am also in favor of concealed weapons permits).

Of course, what this means is that I buy into the argument that armed citizens are a deterrent to all kinds of tyranny. The problem is that most members of the NRA probably consider tyranny in the context of "liberal" efforts to regulate the population. Personally, I am more concerned with the potential for tyranny of conservative ideas....more specifically, theological based tyranny. We already seem to have an infestation of Christian soldiers in the military whose allegiance is to mythological beings and not the US constitution. I would suggest that such people might ultimately pose a threat to civil liberties.

I certainly understand the arguments in favor of gun control, but as I have always proposed, let's not limit someone else's freedoms simply because we don't personally agree with it. Instead, use that freedom to your own benefit. Imagine the response if atheists suddenly joined the NRA in droves. Imagine if Muslims, Buddhists and Wiccans joined shooting clubs. And for something really scary:

Imagine if PZ were not just eloquent, educated, atheistic, and outspoken....but also armed!

Of course it will probably never happen, but gee, wouldn't that get the NRA's panties in a twist? Of course I can hear the arguments now: "The Second Amendment was never intended to apply to atheists"....

Moral Objections To Medical Treatment

CNN has been reporting on doctors who refuse treatments based on moral grounds. This is theocracy, pure and simple. A doctor who refuses a secularly legal treatment has placed his religious beliefs above those of the patent. In doing so, he/she has determined that religious belief trumps secular law. What are the limits of such an attitude? And what happens when Christian religious belief runs counter to another religious (or non-religious) moral imperative? If society accepts the principle that a doctor may refuse treatment on the basis of a religious belief, a personal, mental concept that cannot be verified by any accepted standard of inquiry, then does that society not take a large step in the direction of theocracy? It is very easy, and very simplistic, to consider this issue solely in terms of certain Christian sects who see contraception or abortion as moral issues, but consider every other medical procedure around the world associated with religious views. We chose not to have our child circumcised - I suppose that I should count my blessings that we did not have a fundamentalist Jewish doctor as our physician. After all, if a Catholic doctor can refuse to provide contraception based on a moral objection, why should a Jewish doctor not insist that his patioent's male children be circumcised, based on a moral imperative? Shall we talk about female circumcision? Should a "gay" gene ultimately be discovered will Christians start accepting (perhaps insist upon) abortion under "special religious circumstances"? Where does this lunacy end?

It ends with strict adherence to secular laws. If it is legal, you have an obligation to perform that action for someone else who insists upon it and your personal religious views be damned. If you can't stomach it, then get another job, you coward! If your religious viewpoint means that much to you then take a cut in pay and do something more menial and less lucrative, and quit protecting your outrageously inflated salary under the guise of a moral objection!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Exploring Our Matrix - And Why Intelligent Design Forced Me To Leave The Church

Dr. James F. McGrath left a comment on my previous post regarding the recent PBS series Judgement Day. Be sure to read several posts McGrath has on the series. But more importantly...

...visit Exploring Our Matrix and read Dr. McGrath's insightful posts on things scientific and theological.

Consider, for example, the questions he poses to the ID Advertising Team (Denyse O'Leary, Philip Johnson and Casey Luskin):

In the same way, people like you cause more people to lose their faith (or to not come to faith) than any Darwinian biologist ever could. You tell people evolution is nonsense and present it as incompatible with faith, and some people who don't know any better actually believe you. Then when eventually the mountain of evidence finally gets their attention, they lose their faith, because people like you told them that was the only other option.

Do you fear God? If so, do you think you will not be held accountable for putting unnecessary stumbling blocks in the way of the faithful and those who could believe if it weren't for people like you driving them away from God? [emphasis added].

Dr. McGrath's point is well taken - largely because I am a perfect example of what he is discussing. I remember the day the nuns at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Paradise, California allowed a number of us 6th graders to develop a class lesson on any subject of interest to us and were given time to "teach" the rest of the class. My lesson was on paleontology (using Romer's Vertebrate Paleontology as a main source, if I remember correctly) and made no apologies for liberally invoking evolution. The kids, and the nuns, loved it. The concept of evolution was never a problem for Catholics during my childhood - the pursuit of science was actively encouraged by the nuns and during high school, my biology teacher and mentor (and agnostic) used to comment that his best science students came from the Catholic school. Fast forward 30 some years and we have Catholics Behe and O'Leary spreading misinformation about science and telling students they can't accept evolution and have faith; Cardinal Schonborn telling lies about evolutionary theory; most of my fellow Knights of Columbus couldn't give you a single fact about evolutionary biology but are convinced intelligent design is science; even a significant number of my relatives have been fed enough false information through the church that they now ask me if it's true that all animals appeared suddenly during the Cambrian or that scientists have abandoned radiocarbon dating.

The propaganda from the church and the gullibility of the flock got to be too much. If I have to go against the evidence and believe that Darwin was completely wrong or abandon the Catholic faith, well....the faith just became meaningless. And this didn't end with me....the Catholic church asked my wife and my kids to sacrifice too much in intellectual integrity to make it worthwhile to remain.

So we all left.

O'Leary, Luskin, Johnson and Behe are so interested in protecting their own version of faith that they cannot even comprehend the impact they're having on the church. It's no wonder young people have developed such a negative view of Christianity.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

O'Reilly Needs Holiday Cheer

Ok, we all know that Bill O'Reilly is resurrecting the War on Christmas issue again, and we can be assured of more false alarms and spin on the examples he will be presenting on his TV and radio shows.

So.....I suggest we all take note of his efforst and send Darwin Christmas Cards to Bill, wishing him a Happy Holiday season of his choosing...nothing provocative in the written messages, just warm wishes to him and everyone else at FOX.

PBS Special Follow-Up

I caught the late night showing of PBS's NOVA special, Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial in my hotel room last night. Both PZ and Greg Laden have "liveblogging" comments on the special that are worth looking through.

Lassen County teachers will find lots of good source material on evolution and the fallacies behind intelligent design at the PBS/NOVA website. If you haven't had a chance to see it, Judgement Day will be shown online on November 16. Lassen County school board member should watch this special as well - it's a good lesson on overstepping bounds in science education.

I thought the special provided a great perspective on the strong explanatory power that evolution has as a scientific idea, the clear weakness of intelligent design at explaining anything, and more importantly, just how fallacious both the school board and the ID "scientists" were at presenting ID as an appropriate challenge to evolution.

I was somewhat disappointed in the recreation of Scott Minnich's testimony and cross-examination. It ended with him apparently making a sound point on testing ID versus evolutionary theory that could seemed to have stumped the plaintiffs. The original transcripts of the cross examination are quite different, and suggest a man doing some serious backpeddaling when confronted with the question of whether ID is actually testable.

I found board member Buckingham's response to Judge Jones' decision infuriating. This is a man who came a breadth's hair away from being tried for perjury during the trial and yet he as the hutzpah to lay into the judge for being an "activist". Buckingham should thank his lucky stars that Judge Jones exhibited a far greater show of Christian restraint than the original Dover school board could.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lassen County Educators: PBS Special Tonight

Lassen County science educators should not miss PBS's NOVA special tonight, Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, which documents (as a recent review in Nature put it) the "feebleness of the intelligent design case" during the Dover trial. The Nature review further suggests,

Judgment Day gracefully avoids ridiculing intelligent design for the pseudo-intellectual fundamentalist fig-leaf that it is, by simply showing how the protagonists shot themselves in the foot.

I only now got around to reading the review, however, that last statement was particularly telling in light of the current misinformation floating around at the pro-ID website Evolution News and Views. A recent post by Robert Crowther suggests that the PBS special is engaged in some myth-making, but as usual, when EN&V says the sun is shining, you had better glance out the window (you'll usually discover it is actually night). In reference to Crowther's Myth #2, citing Scott Minnich as having conducted tests to show the bacterial flagellum was irreducibly complex, I went to the original transcripts of Minnich's testimony and cross examination at the Dover trial via the Talkorigins.org Dover files. Needless to say, Crowther's cocky assertions about the nature of Minnich's research demonstrating intelligent design were shredded at the Dover trial when Minnich was forced to admit that no actual tests of irreducible complexity had ever been conducted by either himself or Behe. Neither is there any actual mythology behind the other supposed "myths" that EN&V accuses PBS of fronting. It's all just good old fashioned data gathering and presentation - something the ID crowd can't seem to accomplish. Crowther, in good advertising fashion, is repeating old arguments from ID advocates that have been shown to be the smoke and mirrors they are in the hopes of getting the public to be suspicious of the PBS special tonight.

Hopefully, Lassen County educators will ignore the pro-ID advertising at the EN&V and watch the PBS special. I'm sure we'll be hearing more about this issue in the area after the first of the year. In February, the pro-ID movie Expelled will hit theatres, including no doubt, our own here in Susanville. I am sure the Lassen County Times will weigh in on this issue then as well.

Never fear...Northstate Science will be prepared....

Friday, November 09, 2007

Yeah, Baby! Come To Papa!

Yes, my providers of that morning salvation in a paper cup, Susanville Starbucks, has re-opened its doors after re-modeling (which, on the face of it, didn't seem to change things all that much). But man, what a difference a Venti brewed coffe makes in the morning. I expect my blogging to pick back up now....

Some Good News For The Hadzabe...Hopefully

I had a head's-up on this a couple of days ago via friends in Tanzania but I couldn't confirm the story. However, it now appears that Survival International is reporting that the UAE has withdrawn a deal with the Tanzanian government to secure hunting rights in Hadzabe lands. The original deal would have effectively kicked the Hadzabe out of their lands and forcefully ended their traditional way of life. From the Survival International piece:

The withdrawal is a great victory for the Hadza, a small tribe of hunter-gatherers who live in northwest Tanzania. A Hadza representative said today, ‘If it is true that the Arabs are leaving our land then I am very, very happy.’

I know many indigenous rights organizations and several organizations and individuals in Europe who contacted me on this issue were deeply involved and were able to bring world opinion to bear on this injustice. However, there can be no doubt that those of you in the blogosphere who frequently reported on the plight of the Hadza gave this the steam necessary to be noticed by the larger organizations. You should all pat yourself on the back for your efforts!!

This is indeed a great day for the Hadza...however, I have to remain just "optimistic" rather than downright overjoyed (sorry, I've been working too long in federal government where overly optimistic publicity often precedes an actual decision). If my unconfirmed email statement from the UAE safari company is correct, they are none too pleased:

The Eshkesh Safari Company has surrendered the rights it had secured in 2006 to manage and sustainably utilise the Yaeda Chini/ Lake Eyasha region for hunting...a commercially motivated misrepresentation of the company's intentions and activities has been continuously perpetuated by certain interest groups. This has regretfully caused us to review the long term sutsainability of our planned program in the entire region resulting in our reluctant withdrawal.

Of course, they use all the appropriate buzzwords regarding their operation ("sustainable", "manage") and accusingly invoke some kind of "special interest" conspiracy on the part of those who stood up for Hadzabe rights. And there's the usual hand-wringing over how the poor people of the area are now going to suffer because the company can't bring hunters into the area:

This decision was taken with great reluctance as the withdrawal meant ending numerous human welfare, and wildlife sustainability programs that had been created and initiated following extensive and ongoing consultation with all villages - including Hadzabe representatives - in the region. The Eshkesh Safari Company had commenced extensive regeneration and wildlife protection programs in order to revive the areas wildlife that has been heavily depleted by poachers. The intention was not to initiate hunting trips in the region for several years in order to return animal stocks to sustainable levels.

Their efforts at restoring game populations may indeed be the case but I find it exceedingly disingenuous that these arguments are coming out now...they certainly weren't being discussed when all this first came to light. Further, given a friend's inside perspective on how the UAE operates in general, I remain highly doubtful that the original intent of the deal was anything more than what it seemed to all of us: a safari "playground" for rich UAE princes.

Again, I have not confirmed the source of this email but I suspect it to be a valid statement from the company. There is one further issue still outstanding that tempers my joy at the news. Apparently several of the Hadzabe are still under arrest for daring to protest the original deal. I am hoping to provide positive news on that front sometime soon, but we'll still have to wait and see...

Four Stone Hearth Newest Edition

The newest edition of Four Stone Hearth is up at Sorting Out Science. Check out this month's great collection of anthropology blog posts.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Lassen County Times in Review Oct 30 Edition

It has been some time since I have felt compelled to respond to anything printed in the Lassen County Times. The news has largely stuck with, well, news and the editorials have, at most, remained….quaint. There are times when I miss the conservative elitism sometimes expressed by the paper’s staff – public argument is always a good thing, and I certainly enjoy engaging in it. But the nature of fundamentalist approaches to life is to take them underground when they are challenged consistently, so I suspect it may be some time before the editorial staff sticks too much of a foot in their collective mouths again.

In the meantime, however, we have the usual cast of local letter writers. Bill Ashmore continues the tired and data-less hypothesis that God is responsible for everything significant that happens or does not happen – this time in regards to global warming. (Yes, this is the same Ashmore whose pontification about gays, abortions and the frequency of earthquakes failed every empirical test you could throw at it…and then failed some more). Ashmore of course, gets the details wrong and like all good creationists, penalizes science for its past mistakes (without acknowledging that science is self-correcting); he uses the poor predictions of science 100 years ago as a proxy for the standards of scientific inquiry today; and he conflates media stories with what the scientists themselves actually say. Pretty much standard fare for a fundamentalist.

So the straw man has been constructed and knocked down: according to Ashmore, scientists can provide no data on global warming. The alternative for all of us?....wait for it….God controls the weather! Yep, forget all this debate about science, just trust in the religious intuitions of a handful of men like Ashmore and we’ll all be just fine. No need to actually work at understanding the world around us; no need to derive any conclusions from any physical pattern we see (they are all wrong anyway)…from Ashmore’s viewpoint there’s probably no need for any education. We’ll just sit around the fire with Bill telling us what we need to know and teaching us how to read goat entrails to prophesize the Second Coming.

Men (and women) like Bill Ashmore prove Harris and Hitchens correct every time they open their mouths or set their primitive thoughts to pen: religion poses an inherent threat to human survival and ultimately, “spoils everything”. He simply does not understand that religious approaches to physical world suffer horribly from inconsistency and have not advanced our knowledge of the world around us for more than 30,000 years – ever since anatomically modern humans started to acknowledge their ideological thinking by painting on cave walls. Every advancement of modern society has been made despite religious views, not because of them.

Sorry…but Jesus has nothing to do with it.

Vote For Duane!

I just noticed that Duane at Abnormal Interests was nominated for a Weblog Award. Make sure you vote for Duane!


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Where Was Jesus?

The World Series is over...and Jesus's team lost decisively. So, for all of you out there who are so quick to invoke the divine's name every time something significant happens - please explain to me why the Rockies lost? Could it be that Jesus really doesn't have anything to do with our personal successes or failures?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More Divine Intervention

Yeah, you knew this was coming....

San Diego is actually on fire because of gays. It would appear that any dumbass with an catastrophic event, near-miss, or victory to explain can now invoke the Almighty with no fear of being shunned by society. It pains me to say this, but give me back the biblical version when God limited communication to burning bushes.

Look, people...this is why I cannot take a personal god seriously. If he/she/it isn't busy managing baseball teams to victory, then it's causing earthquakes in the U.S. because we allow both gays and abortions in this country.

Proponents of this kind of "God's wrath" nonsense can't answer the obvious questions that follow from such post hoc justifications: What if Boston wins the World Series? Why can't God summon anything bigger than a 5.5 magnitude earthquake on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade? If God is really upset with gays in San Diego, then why the hell did he fry a Presbyterian church?

The "Number One on Google" Meme

I couldn't resist this one....

Via PZ (yes, I can't spell "pharyngula" either!) I see that World's Fair has proposed an interesting blog meme to see which words/phrases you plug into Google that result in your blog being the number one hit. The rules:

I'd like to suggest a meme, where the premise is that you will attempt to find 5 statements, which if you were to type into google (preferably google.com, but we'll take the other country specific ones if need be), you'll find that you are returned with your blog as the number one hit.

This takes a bit of effort since finding these statements takes a little trial and error, but I'm going to guess that this meme might yield some interesting insight on the blog in question.

To make it easier, we'll let you use a search statement enclosed in quotations - this is just to increase your chances of turning up as number one, but if you happen to have a website with the awesome traffic to command the same statement without quotations, then flaunt it baby! Of course, nnce you find your 5 statements, pass the meme on to others.

So, here are the results for Northstate Science:

1) Northstate Science (no need for quotes, but I was disappointed that for "Northstate" alone (even in quotes) I come up third;

The next three are probably too easy because of my local connections:

2) Susanville creationism

3) Lassen science

4) Lassen County archaeology

But my favorite has to be...

5) "meat for sex" (has to be in quotes, however (Google also asks me if I really mean "meet for sex"); I think I have Bora's femiphobia beat on this one....).

Further Thoughts On Cline and "Biblical" Archaeology

I have been posting individual chapter reviews of Eric Cline’s book, From Eden to Exile, albeit at a snail’s pace. I have actually finished reading the book, enjoying Eric’s call to rescue the serious science of archaeology from the faux archaeologists claiming to have discovered Noah’s Ark and other bible mysteries. I am relieved that a professional archaeologist is finally arguing that much of what we hear of “biblical” archaeology in the media is driven by people with no professional standing in the field and that those with professional backgrounds must no longer sit on the sidelines. I will return to my ongoing review of Eric’s book in the days to come.

In the meantime, I want to address Eric’s recent article in the Boston Globe. Eric was kind enough to send me a heads-up that it was coming and I eagerly read through the piece when it appeared. Although the article reiterated many of the central themes of his book, for some reason the Boston Globe piece highlighted an issue of concern I have regarding the nature of “biblical” archaeology that I think Eric is overlooking. Certainly the big media names like Cornuke and Jacobovici reach a large audience with their misleading (and frequently false) characterizations of the method, theory and data of archaeology. But move past the more popular purveyors of archaeological myth and we are left with a professional archaeology in the Middle East (at least that connected with biblical studies) that still flirts with an issue of credibility. This is not derived from the work conducted by professionals in the field of Syro-Palestinian archaeology – their academic publications and research still stand the test of peer review, so important to maintaining the scientific integrity of a field (by the way, something intelligent design advocates want to bypass). The professional credibility problem comes from other groups who frequently co-opt the professional archaeologist in disseminating public information on archaeology: the fundamentalist Christian organizations, ministers, pastors, and individuals who seem to descend on the Holy Land every year to participate in archaeological projects, only to return to the United States to inform an ill-educated audience how archaeology “proves the Bible”. Eric has mentioned concern with “overzealous biblical maximalists” and their tendency to invoke archaeological conclusions where there are no archaeological data for support. Unfortunately, I remain of the belief that 1) this is a significant problem adversely affecting the public perception of Syro-Palestinian archaeology; 2) it is a problem unique to Syro-Palestinian archaeology (as opposed to archaeological research conducted elsewhere) and is largely the result of this area’s historic ties to major religious texts; 3) professionals in the field of Syro-Palestinian archaeology are at least partially culpable; and 4) it is an issue largely ignored by professionals in the field.

This is a subject I have discussed before, specifically with regard to creationist Carl Baugh’s visit to Lassen County and his false claim of professional credentials in the field. Individuals with a theological agenda, like Baugh, are using their experiences working on archaeological sites in the Middle East to legitimize their faux credentials in archaeology. Carl Baugh is not as famous as Bob Cornuke (and Eric was unfamiliar with the name when I relayed part of the story to him) but he gives hundreds of lectures each year and reaches a large audience. And there are many others who do the same. These individuals pose as much of a threat to the integrity of archaeology as Cornuke and Jacobovici.

This would not be an issue were professionals in Syro-Palestinian archaeology taking an active role in distancing themselves professionally from such pseudo-archaeologists as Baugh and others. But such distancing does not seem to be occurring. One gets the distinct feeling that many Syro-Palestinian archaeologists are comfortable with fundamentalist Christians misrepresenting archaeological research to further the populist notion here in the U.S. that “archaeology proves the bible”. Eric is certainly an exception in this regard, but I wonder if even he understands the extent to which faux archaeology being presented at the local level. My local paper editorial corrections to the contrary, many people in Lassen County are still under the impression that the Israeli Antiquity Authority recognizes Carl Baugh as a legitimate archaeologist, and that he (not Ronny Reich) directed excavations at the Pool of Siloam.

There were a number of blog reactions to Eric’s article, all of which rightly praised Eric for raising issues regarding the faux archaeology often presented by self-anointed “archaeologists” such as Cornuke. Only one post, however, raised the possibility that there may be other issues remaining beneath the professional veneer of “biblical” archaeology even after the more popular sensationalists are stripped away. Duane at Abnormal Interests writes:

But I am afraid that underlying the last of these reasons, "scientific findings may challenge religious dogma," is more than the issue of concerns for religious sensitivities. Much of the funding, at least in the US, for legitimate archaeological research in the southern Levant, comes from those whose religious dogma might be challenged.

So let me ask the hanging questions: To what extent are the results of “biblical” archaeology dictated by fundamentalist Christian funding sources? Is there an adverse effect on the integrity of “biblical” archaeology when so many of those who have a theological stake in the outcome are both participating in and funding the excavations? And where is the IAA in reprimanding those who misrepresent their experiences (and credentials) in archaeology elsewhere?

Duane also raises the issue of using archaeology in the “propaganda wars” between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Archaeology’s use as a political weapon has a long history, but it has always been tempered by professionals in the field who countered such illegitimate use of science to further political goals. Unfortunately, “biblical” archaeology is so laced with faux archaeologists, political propaganda and theological apologetics that it is difficult to separate the science from the advocacy. Eric has started the ball rolling….but it has a ways to travel.

Four Stone Hearth, First Edition, Second Year

The First Edition for the second year (has it been a year already?) of Four Stone Hearth is up at The Primate Diaries. Eric has done a great job of pulling together a selection of anthropology blog posts. I would like to point out that Eric is a graduate of California State University, Chico, and is currently working on his doctorate at Duke...another northeastern California success story!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rockies Don't Actually Have Talent...It Was All Jesus' Doing

From PZ....

This is the kind of religious sophistry that just gets me frothing at the mouth...and why I don't (and can't) believe in a personal god. The implications of such statements are clearly beyond the intellectual capacity of your average baseball player - the general manager just admitted that the Rockies could not have won without divine intervention - so they must not be very good.

By contrast, Kathy Griffin's Emmy Award is based on pure human talent (and therefore actually deserved!).

Road Trip Through Northeastern California

My apologies for not posting of late....

I just returned from a trip along California's Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. I am serving as part of team of agency representatives (Forest Service, National Parks, Fish and Wildlife, etc) and community organizations who are exploring interpretive opportunities along the byway. We're looking at the recreation and educational opportunities along the system, what needs to be improved, and what can be added. I can tell you there are a lot of undiscovered "gems" out there - the museum in Tulelake as an example - and a lot of potential additions. We are helping local communities make this area a destination for a wide variety of tourism.

And of course, I'll be helping to make sure the historical and natural history interpretations follow the best science available...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Want To Win A Prize?

I'm following Eric's lead here....

Be one of the first five people to comment here and by the end of the calendar year I will send you a gift - a real, physical gift that you will receive in the mail (and I don't mean email).

The catch? You must make the same offer on your blog...

The contest begins now....

Why Atheists Are Angry

Wow....Great post on why atheists are angry. I would only add that many people who do not consider themselves strict atheists - a significant number who maintain some kind of spirituality but do not accept the current manifestations of religion - are angry about the very same things. I am not surprised that atheist/agnostic/non-religious attitudes are gaining significant ground among the younger generations.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

In Mourning....Temporarily Anyway

Often we humans are forced to endure tragic events and most of the time we get through them in some way. Many would suggest that such events build character. If such is the case, my character is currently going through withdrawals....

The Susanville Starbucks has closed its doors...

What travesty the likes of which Shakespeare could not imagine! Starbucks has been my bastion of communal recognition; my retreat from the rigors of the every day world. Of late it has also been my source of inspiration - my daily routine has been to grab my Venti Coffee of the Day around 5:00 AM, find my usual corner table, set up my laptop and start blogging away. It was working pretty well, too - until my beloved coffee house closed last week (notice the lack of blog posts?).

Alas, it is only temporary - they are simply re-modeling and will open again on October 27...three weeks without a Venti coffee may seem like eons, however.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

First Anniversary Edition of Four Stone Hearth Up at Remote Central

Tim at Remote Central has the First Anniversary Edition of Four Stone Hearth up. I am glad this blog carnival is continuing, thanks to the efforts of a lot of good anthropologists out there.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Bad Analogies At Evolution News and Views

How many times will Evolution News and Views writers re-cycle a poor analogy before everyone realizes they are not actually making the point they think they’re making? Michael Egnor again incorrectly uses archaeological science as an analogue with intelligent design. He just doesn’t get it.

Archaeology is not, as Egnor mischaracterizes, a science about determining design:

All of us discern design as a matter of daily life. It’s an essential expertise. For scientists — all scientists — it’s a particular expertise. For some scientists — forensic scientists, cryptographers, archaeologists — discernment of design is their science.

What Egnor and other ID advocates fail to recognize is that archaeology does not assume design. This is a difficult concept to explain. In my archaeology class I show the students an “arrowhead” (better described as projectile points – most “arrowheads” are actually atlatl points – the bow and arrow was a relatively late development). Most students will recognize a projectile point as such, as would most ID advocates, and most will clearly infer a human designer. But then I ask, “How do you know that’s a projectile point?” In other words, how do we know what we know? Most students will say that they have seen similar items, read about such things in books or articles, or even tried to make one themselves. As we walk through this exercise, students begin to realize that their assumption of human design is correct, but what on the surface seems obvious is in fact built on a large body of previous knowledge. When I point out that artifacts of such “obvious design” today were once thought to be the products of thunder and lightning and not the result human manufacture, they are somewhat surprised. The knowledge of an “arrowhead” as the result of an intelligent design is dependent upon a history of research in archaeology, geology, ethnography and several other disciplines. It is also based on research specifically directed at the nature of the designer, and only secondarily the design itself (this is another area glossed over by ID advocates using archaeology as an analogy to intelligent design). It took a long time (and a significant amount of written argument) before such design could be attributed to human intelligence.

Egnor and others perceive design without comprehending the research behind that assumption. They suggest an analogous design in nature without offering the same kind of solid research in support. Perhaps another analogy may work better than Egnor's:

In the 1970s Erik van Daniken proposed that much of the monumental architecture we see in archaeological sites around the world (Giza, Titicaca, Palenque, etc.) could not have been constructed by indigenous groups in the area but must have resulted from extraterrestrial knowledge. Such buildings and monuments were so intricate and complex that some thought they could not possibly be constructed by humans but must have been engineered by visitors from other planets possessing far greater technological abilities. In other words, van Daniken argued that a significant portion of the world’s archaeology was the result of design by a higher intelligence. He was arguing, on the basis of his perception of complexity, that current proposed sources of such engineered feats were insufficient to account for that complexity and required intervention by beings with superior capabilities. His ideas were popular among the general public, which largely lacked the understanding of archaeological history, method and theory necessary to see through the faulty logic. Archaeologists of course immediately dismissed van Daniken’s ideas. And they did so with good reason. Archaeologists were familiar with a century’s worth of data from a wide variety of disciplines (not just archaeology, but geology, paleontology, zoology, chemistry, physics, ethnography, ecology, botany, geomorphology, and others) that in total provided significant confirmation that yes, indeed, it was really earthly humans who were responsible for such feats of complexity and there was no reason (and more importantly, no data) to invoke extraterrestrials. Van Daniken, like Egnor and the ID advocates, needed an “intelligent design” because he could not personally perceive that such relatively simple processes would produce such complexity. His “data” were limited to simple analogies with isolated cases and exclamations of incredulity, not basic research showing that extraterrestrials were a better explanation for what was seen on the ground. The current intelligent design movement is highly analogous to van Daniken’s proposals for an extraterrestrial “intelligent design” (I am sure he probably even complained that those “Darwinian archaeologists” were picking on him!).

Archaeological principles, like those in evolutionary biology, are backed by volumes of data from diverse disciplines. They are not analogous to intelligent design, unless taken out of context. Intelligent design has much more in common with Chariots of the Gods? than it does with Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of California and the Great Basin.

Losing Your Academic Job For Challenging Religion?

There seems to be a lot of this going around lately....

While I originally noted the story of Professor Steve Bitterman from Iowa’s Southwestern Community College at Dispatches From The Culture Wars, Chris Heard has been following developments closely and provides some academic perspective on the situation. For those who are not familiar with the situation, the short story is that Bitterman was fired from his teaching position for stating in a Western Civilization class that portions of the Old Testament were not to be taken literally. The longer story is, as you might suspect, somewhat more complicated.

Heard has reviewed the details to date, including a current news item in the Des Moines Register. The scenario appears to be one in which some students became upset after Bitterman challenged their long-held belief systems, complained to the administration (using the word “lawyer”) and the administration promptly fired the professor. Heard suggests there are two parallel issues here and I agree with that assessment. The first is whether Bitterman was insulting to the student during the course of the disagreement. I wholly agree with Heard that professors should take extraordinary efforts not to fall into the trap of engaging students uncivilly. (I also agree with Heard that more than once I have found it difficult not to bring the verbal hammer down on a disruptive student who has no idea what he or she is talking about). A reader responded to Heard’s take on the situation and had this to say:

But I have noted that in other classes where the atmosphere was more laissez-faire, when fundamentalist students heard statements of fact that contradicted their beliefs, they became immediately belligerent, and even threatening. Not once, but every single time, without exception — to the point that I had to steer any such conversation away from class.

While I agree with you that perhaps Bitterman should not have such an abrasive style, my own personal experience in these situations leads me to take the students’ complaints with a huge amount of skepticism.

I agree with Heard that there are not enough details of the situation available to draw a confident conclusion regarding either the chain of events or the details of what actually transpired. However, Heard’s commenter touched on bit of familiarity for me regarding trying to teach fundamentalist Christian students about the real world. So I am going to do what I probably shouldn’t do at this point and draw some tentative conclusions:

- Steve Bitterman was fired unfairly and the Southwestern Community College administration is expressing the same cowardly stance as that maintained by Olivet Nazarene University regarding Richard Colling. College and university administrations need to be very careful about “mucking” with what is being taught in the classroom. They are supposed to be hiring people on the basis of their professional background and expertise within a given field – once that’s done the administration should be exceedingly reluctant to interfere with or comment on information being taught in class;

- The students complaining are probably not very bright. Or, at least they have no concept of what education is truly about and refuse to entertain anything that might contradict their personal cherished beliefs. They probably have fundamentalist Christian backgrounds; their education to this point had probably been dominated by local pastors/ministers, possibly home or private schooling, and/or by public school teachers unwilling to challenge them due to a domineering social/political atmosphere in the community; these students were probably very rude – their expectation, like that of Christians interrupting Buddhist prayer in the Senate (or a fundamentalist Muslim Imam) is that the world (including the professor and all other students in their classes) should conform to and uphold their own beliefs, without any consideration for the fact that a) there may be other ways to look at the world or b) their beliefs are in error;

- Bitterman may or may not have been rude to students, but if he was, my bet is that the students’ own disrespect for alternative views forced the issue. Although a professor should make all efforts to react with civil discourse, knowing the fundamentalist Christian student penchant for obstinately making their views the center of attention, Bitterman was probably pushed to the breaking point. Most of us in the teaching profession have been taken to or over that boundary at some time in our careers;

The second issue Heard raises is in regard to the nature of religious criticism. One student, clearly under the impression that anyone challenging her views was acting criminally, consulted a lawyer over the issue. Incredibly, the lawyer affirmed the student’s viewpoint, suggesting it had been illegal for Bitterman to criticize her religion. Heard’s reaction is completely on target:

Wait … did I read that right? A lawyer told her it was illegal for someone to insult her because of her religious beliefs, and moreover that it was actionable? When did that happen? It’s almost as if this were scripted to prove Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris right about the silliness of religious people thinking that religious views somehow get a “pass,” that one’s religious views are exempt from critical scrutiny or from the ridicule of others. No such legal protection exists. U.S. law protects its citizens from the imposition of a governmentally-chosen, governmentally-sponsored religion, and it protects its citizens from governmental restraint on the free exercise of religion. It does not grant religious citizens some sort of shield against criticism, even harshly insulting criticism. There are many things wrong with a professor insulting a student, but as far as I know, it isn’t a criminal offense.

When I first read the media account of the incident my thoughts were exactly as Heard anticipated: this is precisely why Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens are so popular…and why I believe Harris’s particular argument (that faith is actually dangerous) has some validity. Here is a student (and her lawyer) who honestly believes that her personal belief system is superior to all others, that it should not be subject to criticism, and more to the point, that the government should not only uphold and advance her religious view, but should act to criminally prosecute anyone who would criticize those views. If that ever actually happens in this country, the guns are going to come out (that is what the Second Amendment is for, isn’t it? – guarding against tyranny?)….

Finally, allow me to offer some perspective on Bitterman’s situation from my own position as adjunct teaching faculty at a small community college in a rural, conservative community (Lassen Community College). I also have plenty of opportunity to upset conservative Christian students in my courses – I teach human evolution (not a great subject to win friends in the fundamentalist community) plus I have a component on “biblical archaeology” in my world prehistory class. While I have had belligerent Christian students in classes over the years, the fact is that I have had very few of them and really none at the confrontational level Bitterman may have experienced. One reason may be that, although my blog would seem to indicate otherwise, I maintain a respect for student’s religious viewpoints in the classroom. This doesn’t mean I allow them to dominate the discussion or don’t challenge their views with alternatives – only that I explain the difficulty of their perspectives from the standpoint of science. I also try to turn their arguments into a lesson for the entire class: “Jenny has an interesting argument, however, if you all recall our discussion on geology, here’s why the flood argument doesn’t really work as an explanation…”. It also doesn’t hurt to point out or demonstrate (as I occasionally do) that I understand the creationist and intelligent design “arguments” better than they do. Most fundamentalists don’t like a public display of their faulty thinking (even if done with respect) – so I rarely get openly challenged. I am also somewhat of public figure locally – I’ve taught the human evolution course at Lassen College for about 10 years now, I’ve written editorials and letters to the local paper, and of course many in the community read Northstate Science – most students have a pretty good idea of what kind of perspective they’re going to get when they take one of my courses. Those that are likely to have heartburn with the subject matter don’t tend to take the course.

Bitterman is also apparently dealing with a meddling administration and I note with some interest that the Des Moines Register article referred to the situation of adjunct community college faculty as “adjunct hell”. I can’t say I’ve had the same experiences at Lassen College – I certainly would not describe it as “adjunct hell”. Are adjunct faculty underpaid? Yeah, probably – but then I don’t know a single teacher (K through college) who actually does the job for the pay. If we get a raise, that’s great, but I’m teaching for reasons other than pay. The administration has been supportive on all levels. I know of only one student complaint about me (and it apparently happened years ago – I only just heard about it through the campus grapevine). Of course it was a fundamentalist Christian student complaining that I was teaching human evolution! The fact that I never heard about this tells me the administration basically told this person (presumably politely) that this was a legitimate course, O’Brien is a legitimate professional in the field, and if you don’t like it you should look for another class. I would say that’s pretty supportive. Of course, administrations change (ours has recently) and you ultimately never know…but I have no reason not to expect support here at Lassen College.

Of course if anything does happen, I’m sure you will all be reading about it here….

UPDATE: I actually wrote this several days ago and in the meantime Chris Heard has another update and links to a newer Des Moines Register editorial on the subject. As Heard notes in the byline of his post, there are additional opinions but no new facts. After reading the editorial (and especially the reader comments at the end) I certainly have no reason to adjust my thinking on this subject.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Richard Colling Saga Update

John Hay, Jr. (Bikehiker) has posted a well-written letter to the Board of Trustees at his alma mater, Olivet Nazarene University, requesting that they "...immediately and fully restore Department of Biological Sciences Chair Richard Colling, Ph.D., to teach General Biology and to rescind the Presidential ban on Colling’s book Random Designer".

Please go to John's site and read the letter. Those of you not familiar with Richard Colling's experiences at Olivet Nazarene University can look at my previous post on the topic. I would also suggest you read some of the comments left by some students at ONU...there was also quite a discussion group engaged in conversation on this topic on Facebook.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Review of From Eden to Exile, Chapter 1: The Garden of Eden

Here I would like to continue my review of Eric Cline’s book, From Eden to Exile, Unraveling the Mysteries of the Bible (2007), The National Geographic Society. My thoughts regarding the Introduction can be found here.

In the first chapter of From Eden to Exile, Eric Cline addresses the archaeological and textual evidence for the biblical “Garden of Eden”. Of all the bible “mysteries” to be addressed in upcoming chapters, Cline identifies this as the most difficult to evaluate scientifically…and with some justification: outside of the biblical narrative there is almost no additional textual or archaeological evidence to corroborate the story.

Unfortunately, as we noted in the introduction, most ancient historians and archaeologists generally want several separate sources of evidence before they will believe something to be factually substantiated, and that is simply not possible in the case of the Garden of Eden (p. 1).

The first problem in attempting to assess any real-world historical correspondence between the biblical Garden of Eden and the current geography of that region of the world today is that of the rivers. The biblical texts refer to four rivers within Eden[1]. As Cline notes, two of the four rivers are well known: the Tigris and Euphrates and we must make of these descriptions “…what we will” (p.2). Their biblical names were not as we know them today; however, there is apparently sufficient concordance with other biblical texts to be relatively confident that these are the two rivers being discussed. The other two rivers are the Pishon (which flowed around the land of Havilah) and the Gihon (surrounding the land of Cush). It is not known to what flowing bodies of water these two place names refer, although there has been much speculation. Cline cites Scafi (Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven and Earth) who suggests that there was wide agreement among scholars from the 1st century A.D. Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (who first brought the idea forward) through the Renaissance, that the Gihon and the Pishon were the Nile and the Ganges, respectively. Later biblical references refer to the land of Cush as being in Africa, but Cline notes that the Genesis texts seem to nonetheless link its location with Mesopotamia. In effect, the biblical texts are ambiguous with reference to geographic location and (more importantly in my mind) scale.

Cline next discusses mention of Eden in Sumerian texts that pre-date Genesis and which may themselves have been borrowed from an earlier culture, the Ubaidians (approximately 7500 – 5500 BP). He also notes the existence of additional creation stories from the region that have “striking similarities” to the story found in Genesis. All of these pre-date the biblical account:
Scholars generally agree that the Hebrew Bible as we have it today was compiled from various sources, which were written down as early as the tenth or ninth century B.C. and as late as the sixth or fifth century B.C. Even the earliest parts of the Bible, such as the source called J by biblical scholars, do not date earlier than the tenth or ninth century B.C., hundreds of years after Enuma Elish was written.

Cline argues that these stories are “transmitted narratives” – oral history handed down from generation to generation and culture to culture, and eventually captured in a written language. Such narratives provide the best explanation for both the similarities and the differences between the biblical narratives and other stories from the region. This is an idea that makes good anthropological sense and is supported by anthropological, archaeological, ethnographic and historical data worldwide. We know that prior to written language (or in absence of such a language) oral transmissions of cultural knowledge were vital to maintaining cultural cohesiveness. Cline suggests that such oral traditions in the Near East were probably transmitted between cultures at a time scale on the order of centuries if not longer. I would suggest that oral traditions may in fact be passed for thousands of years. And of course, their content and concepts changed over time. It is also important to realize a primary function of such transmitted narratives: to “explain” the world around them in terms that were culturally meaningful, given their level of scientific and historic knowledge at the time. Of course, by today’s standards, this was not very much. As a result, while their explanations for world origins were culturally meaningful to them, they were not necessarily historically or scientifically accurate.

I have digressed from Cline’s theme for a moment to make a point. This is, again, an area where I perceive a primary difference of approach between the so-called “minimalists” and “maximalists”. As I have mentioned elsewhere, and as most scholars are aware, these terms get bantered around with little or no explanation or definition. But here, I think the distinction explains itself in the way in which biblical texts are used. Perhaps because of my personal theological biases, it is easy for me to set aside theological interpretations and recognize bible narratives solely in the context of cultural transmission. They are important historic texts, not because of their accuracy in identifying historical phenomena, but because they give us insight into first millennium B.C. culture. Treating the biblical narratives solely in terms of their cultural origins and evolution (including assessing cultural, societal and political motivations for constructing such narratives) makes one a “minimalist” in the eyes of most. This is especially true for those who believe the biblical accounts must be referring not just to historically accurate information, but information that is historically correct by 21st century standards. Yet this approach has nothing to do with demonstrating the “accuracy” of the bible as its primary goal. Like Gould’s spandrels at San Marcos, biblical “accuracy” is but a by-product of cultural motivations and perspective. I can fully appreciate that biblical texts may, in some cases, contain accurate historical information – but the degree of accuracy is going to be highly variable, and clearly relative to the cultural level of knowledge (or political influence) at the time of writing. And in this approach, biblical texts are no more accurate than any other ancient text, precisely because they are all share the same broad cultural characteristics: they are written by newly emergent societies, with limited knowledge of the world, that have only recently invented the ability to translate oral history into the written word. I would not expect such texts to be historically, and consistently, accurate in all details. This does not mean they are not important.

Cline hints at a potentially important link between the early Garden of Eden narratives, the paleoenvironmental conditions of the Middle East at the close of the Pleistocene, and the rise of agricultural systems and complex societies. This general time period (the post-Pleistocene, roughly 7-10,000 years BP) witnessed the origin of many economically prominent domesticates (although not nearly all, as we now know domestication of many plant and animal species occurred independently among societies around the world). Cline suggests, as many have, that emerging agricultural systems provided a bounty of plant and animal species, particularly after the introduction of irrigation methods, which must have appeared as something of a “Garden of Eden” to those engaged in this pursuit.

There is something, however, that nags at me regarding “Garden of Eden” stories stemming from emergent agricultural societies – contrary to popular perception, the switch from hunting-gathering economies to agricultural ones was not necessarily a natural transformation – it most likely was forced by deteriorating environmental conditions through the Holocene. Agriculture, relative to hunting-gathering, is labor-intensive, less nutritional, entails greater risk, and produces significant societal “hurdles”: although most foraging societies are aware of agricultural (or at least horticultural) practices, almost none choose that route unless forced by other circumstances. If early agricultural societies thought of their systems as a “Garden of Eden” they probably did so grudgingly. I wonder if a better Garden of Eden may have actually been delta regions to which some societies retreated during the drying Holocene. These would have been true areas of bounty, where emergent agricultural could be sustained, but also where game abounded (unglulates, waterfowl, fish) and hunting could easily supplement the economy. Deltaic regions can also be quite extensive and from the perspective of smaller human groups could easily appear in oral tradition as “one river branching into four”.

Regardless, it is probably true that such stories find their origin in the cultures of those earliest societies, be they dependent on agriculture, foraging, or some combination. Cline continues the chapter by reflecting on the archaeological and historical strengths and weaknesses of various scholarly proposals for the actual location of the Garden of Eden: Juris Zarin’s hypothesis of coastline inundation of a potential location; James Sauer’s suggestion that it was located on the Arabian Peninsula; David Rohl’s claims that it is located in Iran; Gary Greenberg’s identification of it in Egypt; and Michael S. Sanders’ location of the Garden of Eden in Turkey. Cline evaluates each of these in turn, finding the Greenberg and Sanders hypotheses the least backed by proper archaeological and historical method, and the Sauer and Rohl hypotheses plausible, but less likely. Cline clearly favors the Zarin view (originally conceived by Ephraim Speiser) that posits an area off the Persian Gulf coast, now under water. This view makes sense on several levels, not the least of which is the fact that the Persian Gulf coastline would have risen dramatically as Pleistocene glaciers melted over the course of the early Holocene. This view makes further sense for me in that such an area would have been an extensive delta – the kind of environment constituting a Garden of Eden from a forager’s perspective in the early Holocene.

This view also considers the cultural perspective of cultures ultimately responsible for the oral traditions eventually captured in early texts. Differing origin perspectives are not typically considered with current biblical “interpretations” – at least those more popularly perceived. One of the problems is making sense of the relatively different views of scale. The Jewish historian Flavius Joseph may have agreed with other learned scholars at the time that the biblical description encompassed large river systems such as the Ganges and the Nile. From the perspective of a much larger world known from the 5th century, the economic importance of such large river systems would have focused attention on these as the source of the rivers in the biblical narrative. But late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers and the early Holocene farmers were often constrained by areas of economic exploitation. Their “catchment” areas were more on the scale of single rivers or, more likely, resource rich delta systems with single rivers making multiple branches at their mouth.

Ultimately, however, Cline concludes that, although there may be a kernel of historical truth to the Garden of Eden stories (the writer was, after all, referring to some kind of geographical reality, although at what scale remains debatable), the final historical “truth” will probably remain elusive:

It is hard to put the Garden of Eden into historical context, for it belongs to the realm of prehistory, if not myth or legend (p. 13).

From my perspective as an archaeologists and researcher, Cline also offers a much-welcomed assessment of current views: any future evidence announced will have to be backed by legitimate scholars following proper archaeological and historical methodology. Cline raises this important problem, too often ignored by the media and professionals in the field, in greater detail in later chapters of the book.

[1] Technically the text refers to a single river flowing out of Eden to “…water the garden”; from here the single river divides into four branches – geomorphologically speaking, this description is quite different from four separate rivers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bosnian Pyramid Update

I am sorry I missed this earlier, but Hot Cup of Joe has a great piece on psuedo-archaeology of the "Bosnian Pyramid". Check it out...

Being Blunt

I can appreciate bluntness. (I work for a federal agency where we avoid being blunt like the plague - otherwise it might be interepreted as a "hostile work environment"). So I really enjoy it when someone quits beating around the bush and tells it like it is:

There is this old myth about a god who has sex with his human mother to give birth to himself, who grows up to be killed (but not really), and this depreciated sacrifice somehow means everyone else gets to go to heaven when they die. If they believe it, that is; otherwise they go to hell and suffer for eternity.

Now I'm supposed to…

…believe in this fairy tale myself;

…believe that accepting this fairy tale helps people be better human beings;

…believe that accepting this fairy tale helps people be better scientists;

…regard people who swallow this fairy tale with the same respect I do those who see through the nonsense;

…refrain from criticizing this fairy tale; and/or

…pretend this fairy tale isn't a load of ridiculous bullshit.

No, it's never going to happen. I will never accept or even respect your fairy tale.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Are the Critics of Evolution Just Maintaining Cultural Boundaries?

Both Abnormal Interests and Afarensis picked up on my previous posts regarding Richard Colling and I notice that Professor Colling also left a message at Chris Heard's blog, Higgaion. (By the way - I noticed that every comment, email, etc. written by Rick Colling and posted online somewhere was mostly original in content. In other words, he is not simply "cutting and pasting" the same message at numerous locations to get the word out. I think there can be no criticism of Professor Colling's professional integrity - he just wants to continue to educate students in the best science possible; a science, furthermore, that Colling has personally found supportive of his faith).

Afarensis draws an important anthropological consideration regarding all the furor over Colling teaching evolution at an evangelical university. Afarensis writes:

In essence, those "...few profoundly scientifically ignorant individuals..." have decided that Dr. Colling is no longer christian enough to teach biology at the university. This is a good example of why framing won't work. Dr. Colling comes across as an intelligent individual with a sophisticated grasp of christian theology, yet he has run afoul of fundamentalist members of his community.

I am afraid I have not kept up with all the commentary on "framing" going through the science blogs of late, so I cannot really comment on whether this incident runs counter to the idea of framing. However, I fully agree with Afarensis' assertion that this is an example of groups maintaining their cultural boundaries:

It all gets back to boundary maintenance (a mechanism to prevent ideas from eeping across porous cultural boundaries - in effect boundary maintenance mechanisms serve to separate culture groups and provide a rigid, well defined marker between "us" and "them") and Dr. Colling strayed too far across the boundary. For his local community Dr. Colling has become one of "them".

Afarensis cites Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's book, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Again, I have not read the book, but the idea of a sort of "cultural immune system" is talked about with some frequency in anthropological circles. I would argue from my own currently limited understanding of boundary maintenance in anthropological theory (including its archaeological applications) that political motivations are often underwritten (or masked) by other aspects of culture, including religion. I can easily see much of the creationist movement (particularly "intelligent design") being fueled more by political and economic considerations than by sincere belief. As an example, I sometimes wonder if Ken Ham's creationist position has more to do with the ability to talk donors out of $28 million dollars for a museum (plus, no doubt, a healthy lifestyle for himself) than a sincere commitment to the idea that the earth is only 6,000 years old and tyrannosaurs were vegetarians prior to The Fall. Ken Ham, Rick Warren, Bill Donahue and others have far more to lose (in terms of economic and political power) than a scientific argument. And I find it interesting that those opposed to Rick Colling seem to be wielding financial threats (read: economic power) in a way that is more suggestive of a concern to maintain a cultural boundary where they are in control on one side. Put another way, I am very suspicious of those with power (economic or political) espousing religious or other cultural "values" - one has to constantly wonder whether they do it out of a sincere belief, or simply to maintain their economic "base".

I've rambled here, but I think Afarensis has hit on an idea that deserves further reflection and comment.

More News on Richard Colling...And A Good Idea

Richard Colling has also been exchanging comments on Henry Neufeld's blog, Threads From Henry's Web. I would recommend adding Henry's blog to your blogroll lists, particularly if you are at all interested in thoughts on the intersection of science and theology. Colling's comment to Neufeld is another straight-from-the-heart account of the current situation at Olivet Nazarene University, where his book has been banned from classroom use and he is no longer allowed to teach the biology class - simply because he has a theistic view of evolution. Colling has also been posting at The Panda's Thumb...with some encouraging news:

Actually, the feedback I have received in the past few days has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Only one hate mail this morning. I thanked her for taking the time to communicate her views to me.

The students and alums who know me are really beginning to mobilize. I heard that the president’s office is receiving many very upset phone calls and emails from people supporting me and my work. Remember, I have been here for 26 years loving and caring and investing my life in the lives of my students. Calculate ~25 major graduating each year for 26 years. This translates into a large number of alumni who know that these accusations of eroding the faith of students with my book or teaching is a complete fundamentalist fabrication.

(Anyone surprised that fundamentalists are fabricating issues and evidence?). The good news is that Colling seems to now be getting support from students, faculty and parents who actually know something about the subject of his courses rather than his critics who are largely making it up as they go. An anonymous reader on my previous post suggested another good strategy that Colling's supporters might want to try:

If I were a student on Dr. Colling's campus, I'd try to organize a peaceful gathering on the quad or under the flagpole, where his book would be read aloud, paragraph by paragraph, to anyone who would listen.

An absolutely fantastic idea! We have enough prayer-around-the-flagpole events anyway...why not one is support of an earthly cause for a change?

There is another theme running through all these emails, posts and comments regarding Colling's situation - his teaching is not at odds in the least with Church of the Nazarene theology. Another anonymous reader indicated the following:

THERE IS NOTHING IN OUR DOCTRINE OR MANUAL OF BELIEF THAT CONTRADICTS EVOLUTIONARY THEORY! We believe that God created the Earth, but we have never had the small-minded, rather stupid view that He could not use evolution to do that. And no one I know, at least in our local church, holds to a 'young earth' viewpoint. Nor is that view an accepted one in our doctrine. That is one of the saddest things about Dr. Colling's plight--that he is being pilloried for teaching biology in a way that does not even contradict our doctrine.

Professor Colling said as much again in his comment on Threads From Henry's Web:

They can’t stand the apparent public endorsement of evolution in spite of the fact that our denomination and university statements are fully accepting of verifiable scientific discoveries - including evolution. I teach all my biology courses with accuracy and integrity, and then encourage those students who come from the more conservative homes to keep an open mind. I try to help them explore ways in which these remarkable evolutionary mechanisms might actually be considered compatible (or at least not inconsistent with) with belief in God. This approach to teaching is shared by all the biology faculty here.

This is really the crux of the problem. Whether or not you believe in a deity, the fact is that MOST theologies do not have an issue with evolutionary theory, or the fossil record, or the fact that Lucy may have been one of our ancestors. The problem starts when an ignorant few suddenly decide they are going to re-interpret standard theology to make it appear that churches have an issue with evolution. I know a lot of people often cite my former, Catholic Church as a light of evolutionary acceptance, but I can no longer accept that description. Despite Pius (who was lukewarm toward evolution, I grant you), despite John Paul, despite Benedict's recent proclamations, there are many(mostly American) Catholic writers who seem to still insist that, "No, that's not what they meant....the only science Catholic doctrine really supports is intelligent design". And these writers are gaining more ground within the Catholic pews than all three popes put together. They are, in effect, attempting to re-package theology so that it is more accepting of their personal views.

And Colling and others are right to worry about the long-term effect this theological insistence on anti-science will ultimately have on the long-term survival of Christianity. Many of us were pushed toward atheism (or at least, out of organized religion) largely because the loudest voices in the church still promote faulty science (be it creationism, erroneous "biblical" archaeology, or something else). If church leaders (and supporters) can fabricate science, then what other aspects of doctrine (historical, theological, or otherwise) are they also fabricating?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Richard Colling: Scientist, Christian...and Martyr

Some of you will remember that I previously posted on Dr. Richard Colling, a professor at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, who defended evolution as God's process, contrary to the strict literal interpretation of Genesis preferred by the Church of the Nazarene, the denomination in control of ONU. Colling is a man of faith who also clearly recognizes that the real world tells a story that may ultimately be closer to God's truth than that portrayed in primitive biblical texts. In a 2004 article, Colling describes his perspective:

Colling is one of a small number of conservative Christian scholars who are trying to convince biblical literalists that Darwin's theory of evolution is no more the work of the devil than is physicist Isaac Newton's theory of gravity....

Usually, the defense of evolution comes from scientists. But Colling has another motivation.
"People should not feel they have to deny reality in order to experience their faith," he says.

Since that time, however, the forces of darkness and ignorance influencing the administration at ONU have decided that Richard Colling should not be allowed to teach science when it contradicts stubbornly held myth. Colling's personal struggle to bring peace between science and religion has come to a head, and now Professor Colling faces a situation more reminiscent of conditions in Iran than America. A pre-release Newsweek on Colling and other scientists of faith shows how these courageous individuals are being persecuted for their ideas, much in the same fashion as Galileo was persecuted for his. Because of his attempts to reconcile faith with the facts of science, ONU, under pressure from some "irate parents, pastors, and others" has brought the inquisition to Professor Colling:

Colling is prohibited from teaching the general biology class, a version of which he had taught since 1991, and college president John Bowling has banned professors from assigning his book. At least one local Nazarene church called for Colling to be fired and threatened to withhold financial support from the college...

...Yet with the new term, Bowling banned "Random Designer" [Colling's book] from all courses; it had been used in at least one history class, an advanced biology course and the general biology course.

The science blogosphere has picked up on Colling's current plight. Although Richard Colling is a lifelong member of the Church of the Nazarene, a graduate of Olivet Nazarene University and believes in a God that is "...bigger, far more profound and vastly more creative than you may have known", the reaction from Church of the Nazarene despots would lead you to believe he is another Christopher Hitchens. As PZ notes at Pharyngula:

He must have done something truly horrible! Why, he sounds like some kind of godless atheist who is trying to pry his students away from the loving embrace of the church.

At EvolutionBlog, Jason comments:

You would think that even at a Christian university a person's religious views are not really relevant to what gets taught in science class. And I wouldn't have thought that theistic evolution was such an outre position among Christians that Colling would come in for this kind of flak for writing a book about it.

Panda's Thumb comments on the expected (and so far, attained) Discovery Institute hypocrisy over "teaching the controversy":

ID proponents are quick to argue ‘viewpoint discrimination’ whenever their attempts to introduce their scientifically vacuous ideas fail....
So when can we expect a cry of outrage from the Discovery Institute, demanding that Colling will be allowed to teach his usual classes?
Has Hell frozen over? Oh the irony…

Yes, where is Casey Luskin? Anika Smith? Michael Egnor? Denyse O'Leary?

Henry Neufeld, however, cuts right through to the main issue in a post entitled "Where Teaching the Controversy is Prohibited". The "Teach the Controversy" argument is nothing but pure propoganda - there is no expectation on the part of its advocates that any sort of "controversy" be taught. It is only the first step in getting control of the curriculum and weeding out evolutionary science altogether. As Neufeld argues:

I have suggested many times before that before one believes what IDC (intelligent design creationism) advocates say about their goals, one should look at the way they handle the matter where they are in control....

This action shows some of the destructive potential of ignorance, but it also removes any fig-leaf of respectability from the “teach the controversy” argument. The advocates of creationism generally do not want the controversy taught. They want to win. If they were to win a court case allowing their materials into the public school classrooms, their next move would be to prevent critical examination of those ideas, and then to prevent the teaching of evolutionary theory itself....

I believe that the Olivet example is what theistic evolutionists such as myself can expect from the ID movement. They want to shut us out. They certainly don’t want to “teach the controversy” about ID, a controversy that is very much alive amongst Christians.

You see, “teaching the controversy” is good when you want to wedge your way into the public schools, or force your way into universities. It’s not so good when someone wants to fairly examine the controversy inside a Christian school. They want a “heads we win, tails you lose” situation.

Other good discussions of Colling's situation can be found at Metacatholic and Higgaion. And while I'm sure other bloggers have also commented, we all can do no better than to let Richard Colling speak for himself. I have been privileged to have exchanged emails with Richard Colling over the past few days and he has written eloquently on his perspective, his plight and his desire to do nothing more than to teach students that they do not have to fear science in order to maintain personal faith. With Professor Colling's permission, I post the entire message I received this morning:

Hello Chris,

This article tells only the tip of the iceberg, but will give you a flavor...


Here is the actual truth. All I have ever wanted to do is to communicate and then cultivate a message of peace and harmony between Science and Faith. Unfortunately, what I have learned over the past two years is that some profoundly scientifically naive fundamentalist Christians only want war - apparently intent on destroying and discrediting anyone who does not conform to the fundamentalist creationist mindset.

I truly feel that I can empathize with Galileo of 1633 when the Catholic church placed restrictions on him. I suppose it was inevitable that it would someday come to this: The battle fought against the scientifically naive religious authority and won by Galileo (albeit it took 400 years for vindication) was in the physical sciences. (The earth is NOT the center of the universe.) In contrast, regarding the emancipation of evolution (biological sciences) from the self-appointed religious authorities has not yet occurred in the United States. Perhaps it is time.

I believe that it is a matter of when, not if, the evolutionary paradigm WILL be integrated into the evangelical Christian theology. If not, the Christian faith will be relegated to cultural obsolescence. With the genetic data derived from the human genome project and other sources, the evolutionary connectedness of life on earth can no longer be denied. Therefore to build the foundation of the Christian faith on opposition to evolution is not only silly, it is suicide for the long-term viability and credibility of the faith.

It has been a rude and very unsettling experience. While promoting a message of peace, and after 26 years of faithful devotion to Christian higher education and investment in the lives of thousands of our college men and women, it is difficult to describe the depths of my disappointment that a few profoundly scientifically ignorant individuals have been allowed to create such discord and damage to to me and the university in the public's eye - by convincing a university president to acquiesce to their demands. (even though the president privately continues to say that he has identified nothing in my teaching or writing that is scientifically or theologically deficient.) The truth is this: My students love me, I love them, and we are all getting along fine. The outside critics notwithstanding...

I have been told in essence in a letter from the president of the university that although it may seem unfair, the truth and facts will not matter here. Perception is what is guiding his actions. I am still numbed by these words coming from a university president when discussing the teaching of biology in a university setting. Therefore, it seems that the only tools allowed for this discussion and commitment to truth and principle are political tools. Sad. I have always held that it is truth and education that sets us free, not uninformed political perceptions.

I am under no illusion that certain members of the board of trustees who have been uniformly hostile toward my teaching and writing may now attempt to manufacture something to use to retaliate against me. Oh well. I stand on truth and principle.

I include here for you a written statement I provided to the local newspaper. The article should come out today. Feel free to disseminate any of this commentary and information.
All I have ever wanted in my 26 years of writing and teaching is to communicate a message of peace and harmony between science and faith. I believe I have faithfully fulfilled this work in a manner that models the stated ideals of an Olivet Nazarene University faculty member. Therefore, I am very disappointed by these unwarranted and unnecessary actions which seem to suggest otherwise.

I believe these measures, made in response to off-campus scientifically uninformed critics of evolution, cannot help but cast a negative, and up until this time, an undeserved reflection on Olivet's reputation as a bona fide institution of higher education. As a proud ONU alumnus (Class of 1976) and veteran faculty member of 26 years who devoted my entire professional career to upholding the Olivet mission of "Education with a Christian Purpose", this seems like a medieval blow to the university's dedicated professional faculty and the institution's educational standing in the greater academic community.

In a culture and society increasingly driven by advances in science and technology, it is a sad day in the life of a Christian university when new understanding and insights into God's creation revealed by biology and genetics are viewed as a threat to faith. Students deserve better. Those who continue set biology at odds with the Bible do a terrible disservice to both.

Let the whole world know. It is time for truth and transparency.

Rick Colling

Not much else to say. Professor Colling is another of those rare men of honor and integrity who might just bring someone like me back to the fold. I will tell you one thing: I no longer believe creationism is merely misguided...in many manifestations (such as this) I think it is actually evil. I can no longer give creationism or its proponents any quarter....