Where Was I?

July 8, 2010

Boy, tempus sure has fugited. It’s been a busy year, but I’ll spare you the details.

There’s more to say, but right now I just want to highlight the good folks at Talking Points Memo, who have enrolled in Beck University to check out its demanding course load. The first installment appears to be the usual claptrap about how the Founding Fathers were all Jesus whoopers who would have made full-immersion baptisms a requirement of citizenship if they’d only had the time to stick it into the Constitution. Since the patrons of this online “university” pony up $9.95 a month for this stuff, I can only marvel at the willingness of conservatives to keep paying good money to hear the same nonsense repeated ad infinitum.

Later.

Debate of the Living Dead

February 24, 2009

I think it’s safe to say that if a geologist decided it would not be worth his  time to engage in a staged discussion with a hollow-earth cultist, you would not hear people of average education accusing him of being pissy or trying to stifle scientific debate. That’s because people of average education and intellect understand that the interior of the earth is not a vast cavern with its own sun, and that the Pellucidar novels are pulp fantasy, not scientific speculation. They also understand that for a scientist, getting into a “debate” with a scientifically illiterate crank has no upside — it is simply a time-suck that will keep him away from career-advancing research, while giving the crank a spurious air of authority.

So why is it that somebody who is demonstrably well-educated in many areas fails to grasp that evolutionary biologist Nick Gotelli has better things to do with his time than engage in yet another “debate” about creationism and evolutionary theory with somebody from the Discovery Institute, that wellspring of bad-faith argument and impenetrable ignorance? And that Gotelli’s elegantly phrased and utterly scathing rejection of the offer of debate is not “posturing” or pissiness, but simply streetwwise recognition of the fact that the Discovery Institute is interested only in grubbing for publicity.

“Debate” implies an exchange of arguments that leads to a conclusion and an adjustment of opinions in the face of the stronger argument. Gotelli knows that he can spend hours demolishing creationist arguments, like other scientists before him, without changing a single mind on the other side. When a creationist’s points are refuted, he simply reshuffles and restates them. If George Romero makes another zombie movie, I humbly suggest he clothe the undead in t-shirts with terms like “Irreducible Complexity” and “Intelligent Design” across the chests. No matter how many times you shoot them down, they get back up and keep coming.

There is plenty of debate taking place every day about the nature of evolution. Creationism — or intelligent design or whatever new bottle is fashioned to hold the old whine — is not a part of that debate. The staffers at the Discovery Institute are either half-smart religious cranks, or fully sleazy operators who know better but keep pushing discredited nonsense because they want to keep cashing their wingnut welfare checks.

This story about a young earth creationist who managed to score a doctorate in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island raises two entirely different sets of thorny questions. The first set concerns the character of Marcus Ross, who believes the biblical account of creation is literally true (which of the two stories in Genesis he subscribes to is not specified) and that the Earth is at most only 10,000 years old, but managed to play it straight enough to finish a scientifically credible paper about the spread of mosasaurs about 35 million years ago. So, is Dr. Ross an accomplished liar and fraud? Is it possible to get a degree in an area of science you personally consider a Satanic lie without raising damning questions about your own ethics?

It’s revealing that Ross immediately went to teach at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, which makes belief in young earth creationism a requirement for employment. Apparently there are a number of other creationists who have managed the similar feat of getting respectable academic credentials by doing work that directly contradicts what they believe. One was even a student of the late Stephen Jay Gould, the bete noire of creationists, which makes me wish the old paleontologist could be contacted for his views via ouija board.

The other set of questions is for the other geosciences students at the University of Rhode Island. If I were in their shoes, I would seriously consider shifting to another university program. If Ross did the work then Ross deserves the degree, no doubt about that. But can there also be any doubt that his doctorate is simply another step in the creationist drive to robe anti-intellectual dogma in the garments of scholarship? Will any student Ross mentors be able to evade the suspicion that he is simply another Trojan horse built to smuggle religious frauds into respectable science? And would any other student attending the University of Rhode Island want to be associated with the university that helped promote religious quacks?

Back in my bright college days, I took a class that started with the teacher, Richard Hughes, asking for a show of hands on how many people thought the truth of a situation could never really be determined. Quite a few hands went up, which shocked me — if you really believe that truth is beyond human grasp, then what is there about journalism that would be remotely attractive to you? Why be a journalist if you don’t agree with the very basis of journalism?

But the comparison breaks down: journalism is not a heavily credentialed field. It’s hard to imagine a comparison with any other branch of academe. It would be one thing if a student from the Milton Friedman school of economics took a class in Marxist theory simply to test his beliefs against an opposing school of thought. That would be honorable, even admirable. But what would we make of that student if he went on to complete his doctorate in Marxist theory?

The comparison breaks down because scientific inquiry is predicated on rigorous intellectual honesty, and Marcus Ross, while observing the proper forms, has apparently tossed out the core meaning of the field. In science, one forms a hypothesis, tests it repeatedly, then goes on to form a theory based on the available evidence. Creationism cannot be science because by its very nature it meets none of the scientific norms. You can’t call upon the deity to replicate results in the field. Had Ross tried to earn a doctorate on the terms of his own beliefs, he would have been laughed out of the university. His is a doctorate in dissembling, not science.

Dr. Marcus Ross has mastered the trappings of science, but he will never be a scientist. His doctorate is real enough, but it will be used to promote unreality. Ross and his fellows are termites in the groves of academe, devouring their field from within. If the creationists cannot attain respectability by rising to meet the standards of science, they will work to lower the standards.

Their victory will be a hollow one, because real science will continue elsewhere even as they work to distort it here. If the religious frauds succeed in packing the halls of universities with their brethren, then America will be the loser as other countries take the leadership role America once held. All because a small sect of believers cannot bear to see their notions of reality challenged in any way. The egotism and arrogance of these people is astonishing to me.

David Paszkiewicz, the Kearny High School history teacher caught using his classroom to proselytize for his particularly flaky brand of Christianity, lays bare his worldview and the quality of his intellect in a letter to the local Kearny newspaper. All I can do is echo the quip delivered by David Niven when a streaker interrupted his remarks during the 1974 Oscar broadcast: Some people just seem to feel compelled to strip down and display their shortcomings in public.

Paszkiewicz’s letter is apparently an extended cut-and-paste job from the Web site of WallBuilders, a Christianist group founded by pseudo-historian David Barton. Barton’s shtick is to cherry-pick lines from letters and speeches in order to push the notion that the doctrine of separation between church and state is “a myth,” and that the Founding Fathers were in actuality a jolly bunch of Jesus-whoopin’ Bible thumpers who could scarcely be bothered to pause to sign the Declaration of Independence before rushing off to conduct full-immersion baptisms in the Delaware River.

For example, Thomas Jefferson’s oft-repeated remark that he was a “true disciple” of the teachings of Jesus, clearly a slap at pious hypocrites, gets lathered and rinsed by Barton and his mob into an argument for turning America into a theocratic state. It has been demonstrated time and again that Jefferson was a Deist who gave religion a place in society but opposed any notion that a particular form of religion should be given dominion over all.

Take down the Library of America edition of Jefferson’s writings and turn to page 510, where you will find his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

What does David Paszkiewicz, “history teacher,” make of this?

The so called “wall of separation” is mentioned only in a letter to an organization of Baptists in Danbury Conn. in which Jefferson uses that phrase to assure them that he will not restrict their religious liberty. It is unfortunate that this is the only Jefferson quote on the subject that gets attention in the press. Allow me to share some more.

Yo, teach, Jefferson does in fact refer to the “wall of separation” again in his 1808 letter to the Virginia Baptists:

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

Pretty hard to miss the meaning of those words, don’t you think? But our Meadowlands scholar, apparently not blessed with research skills, is more interested in offering a line of carefully culled quotes meant to twist Jefferson — a man frequently accused of atheism by his political enemies, whose used Deist terminology like “Creator” and “Nature’s God” with great consistency, and who was demonstrably moving away from religious relief in his last years — into a proto-Jerry Falwell.

Jefferson wrote that letter to the Danbury Baptists while still vice president, and only a couple of months before he began his tenure as third president of the United States. Yet Paszkiewicz, scouring letters for upbeat references to religion, tries to toss this clear statement of purpose away as meaningless. Any history teacher worthy of the title knows that Jefferson worked with James Madison to block attempts to levy taxes in support of churches, and that as president he repeatedly refused to issue proclamations of national days of prayer. Jefferson had spent time in France just before the Revolution; he had seen the malign influence of the clergy on public affairs.

This goes beyond a simple difference of interpretation: Paszkiewicz is perpetrating intellectual fraud.

David Paszkiewicz can whine all he likes about “enemies of religious freedom who appeal to the decisions of tyrannical courts,” but the plain fact of the matter is that he got caught using his classroom to conduct a pulpit call instead of fulfilling his role as an educator. His only defense is to recycle distorted quotes from a wingnut Web site and try to pose in the rags of a Christian martyr. This is a history teacher? What a shabby performance!

If the Kearny school board doesn’t mind seeing the district become a national laughingstock — well, that’s their lookout. But if I were a parent in the Kearny school district, the thought that this guy is teaching in the high school, rather than pushing a floor-waxer down its halls, would be causing me some sleepless nights.

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