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, 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.