Wednesday, August 27, 2008

HONK IF YOU HATE JESUS: Coddling the children of evangelicals in science class

Before getting to the meat of today's rant, a quick selection of sightings of Barack Obama's alleged "problem" with white working-class voters in today's Los Angeles Times.

Keep in mind, DD's best friends are (and were) LAT employees. And LAT editors and reporters have virtually nothing in common with the working class its political reporters seem to be so concerned with. A good number have salaries which hover just near six figures.

Today's paper featured a picture of James Rainey, one of the newspaper's swells riding in a limousine with famous rich person Arianna Huffington, pompously dubbed Queen of the Bloggers -- and celebrity Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live.

"[Pennsyltucky governor] Ed Rendell acknowledged that he remained antsy about the Obama campaign's difficulty connecting with traditional, working class Democratic voters ..." -- runover from page 1 in Obama backers want to move on.

"You ask [Obama] a question and he gives you a six-minute answer, and the six-minute answer is smart as all get out, it's intellectual ... But it's a lousy soundbite." -- Ed Rendell from With Pals Like These the same story.

To translate:

Dense white guys who blurt out whatever comes into their head ----> good leaders!

Smart people who take too long to answer a question ----> bad!

And in the always necessary quotes from heevahavas, or "nut-picking:"

"Still in the Democratic convention's host community, it is not hard to find voters who speak candidly about the role of race ... Guy Harvey and some friends, for example, drove north ... to the Denver suburbs last weekend to shop for western wear... Harvey is a Republican who said the country is not ready for Obama ... One of his friends who did not give his name shouted a more blunt reason for supporting McCain ... 'He's white.'" -- Union chiefs rail at racism, page 14.

The Sunday New York Times featured a frontpage story on how one biology teacher in Florida approached teaching evolution in a class filled with children of evangelicals. We'll cut to the chase and call it what it was: An exercise in coddling, however well meant, of walking on egg-shells so that students aren't turned off by "science."

The story was entitled "A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash" and it is here.

Such stories never cease to startle your Ph.D-in-chemistry-holding host.

To consider the subject as part of the front-line in a phony war between science and religion is to show how crabbed and backward this country has become.

DD graduated from Pine Grove Area High School in Pennsyltucky in 1974 and had four years of college prep biology there. There was no war between religion and science. There was no special care taken in the teaching of evolution, steps taken to avoid hurting the feelings and sensibilities of the orthodox believers in scripture. There was no hand-wringing over high school science being seen as an assault on one's culture and values.

If you didn't get biology you received a mediocre or failing grade, which is -- traditionally -- how all students of science must be treated.

The New York Times reporter writes:

"Some [students] come armed with Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution, a document circulated on the Internet that highlights supposed weaknesses in evolutionary theory ... Others scrawl their opposition on homework assignments. Many just tune out."

This supposes that high school students can think critically and that they should have a say in what they are taught, if only as a matter of correction and oversight.

A superficial reading of such a pamphlet as mentioned by the Times, or another called "Evolution Exposed" -- said to have been furnished by a local mischief-making pastor, can create the impression in those who cannot think objectively, but who think they can, that such gazettes are critical examinations of evolution. And that they foster independent and probing minds.

It casts the impression students are in a position to distinguish utter rubbish from careful thought when just the opposite is true. If there were some validity to this practice, then there should be no problem with teaching from things like "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" -- one of the more infamous and discredited hoax texts -- in history class.

What evangelicals, and by extension -- the current Republican party, have been successful in doing is a type of brain-washing. In the case of evolution, they have re-framed science for people who do not know science, labelling it as something which attacks their culture and values.

However, this has never been the case.

DD spent four years at Albright College in Pennsylvania, earning a degree in biochemistry, and another five at Lehigh University, adding a masters and doctorate in chemistry. Belief was not at all an uncommon thing among his professors. Religion, or belief in Jesus, did not impede their teaching of science, their research or damage the way of life.

An excellent but curious and very germane example is illustrated in the case of Michael Behe, a scientist who was hired by Lehigh's Department of Chemistry the same year DD was graduating.

Behe became one of the principal advocates of intelligent design -- that ideology which a judge in Pennsylvania found to be the same as creationism, not science but a part of religious belief.

However, when Behe came to Lehigh, none of this was known. DD's advisor was part of the search committee and the department was quite taken with his record of academic achievement and research publication. None of it dealt with a so-called debunking of evolution.

And Lehigh hired Behe.

In the late Nineties, after Behe had tenure, Darwin's Black Box -- his first book on ID as an alleged alternative to Darwinian evolution, was published by the Free Press. At the time, the Dept. of Chemistry was infrequently mailing an alumni letter to its graduates. In it, the head of the department marvelled at the book's achievement as a bestseller. This only illustrated that not many scientists at Lehigh had bothered to initially read it.

"Darwin's Black Box was not well received by the scientific community, [which]overwhelmingly rejected Behe's premises and arguments," states Wikipedia, in a somewhat understated fashion.

Eventually, Lehigh's biology department took the extraordinary step of putting a disclaimer about Michael Behe and intelligent design on its website.

"It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific," it reads.

For high school students, the lesson is that science does not preclude a belief in God because there is no way to test for the existence of a supreme being. One might even go so far to say that science -- at least in this case -- is fairly tolerant of the dogmatic true-believer, even when he tries to confuse the issue for laymen.

The New York Times article goes on to illustrate the strenuous task faced by the sincere teacher of biology in Orange Park, Florida. Down the hall is another science high school teacher jamming proper instruction.

Now, it comes as no surprise that high school science teachers aren't always what they're cracked up to be.

In truth it's not particularly hard to find those who are unfit for the job, often because public school education -- although it professes the opposite -- doesn't put any real premium on science education.

For example, even venerable Pine Grove Area High School was susceptible to padding the staff with scrubs. When DD graduated from Lehigh, Pine Grove high's chemistry teacher was actually one of its former shop instructors.

"[A] biology teacher down the hall ... taught a unit she called 'Evolution or NOT'," reported the Times.

The teacher left it up to her students "to draw their own conclusion," added the Times. "But when pressed she tells them: 'I think God did it.'"

"I don't think we have this massive change over time where we go from fish to amphibians, from monkeys to man ... We see lizards with different-shaped tails, we don't see blizzards -- the lizard bird."

What the Times' reporter fails to inform readers is that refuting links between dinosaurs and birds is a stock tactic of believers in creationism.

However, it takes but a moment to find a recent article from Science magazine here, one addressing the issue for the peer-reviewed journal.

If you don't have a subscription, try this summary at NPR.

"We determined that T. rex, in fact, grouped with birds — ostrich and chicken — better than any other organism that we studied," John Asara, one of the researchers for the article in Science. "We also show that it groups better with birds than modern reptiles, such as alligators and green anole lizards," the scientist told NPR.

In relation to the current presidential elections, both candidates could go a long way toward pushing back on the damage done by evangelicals and stock Republican voter-pandering policy during the last eight years. They could unequivocally state that the federal government believes in the primacy of science education in this country and that religion has no part in it. And, therefore, that states should in no way be in the business of determining separate standards in this area, particularly when the standards are written to accommodate cultural beliefs.

"The science standards that govern how public schools teach biological evolution -- the idea that life in all its forms has evolved over billions of years through mutation and natural selection -- have improved in many states since 2000," reported the NYT. "But most states standards do not explicitly require teachers to explain that humans evolved from earlier life forms."

This is no record to be proud of, particularly in contrast with DD's experience in public school in the early Seventies.

What it really comes down to is this: Sometimes parents and students need to have the boots put to them. High school biology students aren't in demonstrated need of a coddling so that their lack of enjoyment of the subject material doesn't close their unformed minds even more tightly.


Class and cultural wars -- from the archives.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're not too clever, and logic is a thing the Vulcans have on Star Trek, then religion is just what you need. Don't understand Algebra, Calculus, Chemistry, or Physics? Don't worry, Jebus will save you! Can't fathom the difference between DNA and RNA or what a mole is? Don't worry, Jebus saves!

Praise the Lord, because he's the answer when you can't figure it out.

1:58 PM  

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