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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Florida (finally) adds evolution to curriculum, catches up with the 19th century

Posted by Fred on February 22, 2008

Edaphosaurus_BW Beware the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Florida, which has consistently been ranked among the worst states for science education since its current standards were introduced in 1996 (in large part because the standards were driven by rural Floridians for whom certain topics conflict with their Young Earth Creationist worldview), recently joined the 19th century and officially added evolution to its state science curriculum (although students won’t be tested on it until at least 2012).  Religious fundamentalists couldn’t leave well enough alone, of course, and pulled out the old canard about evolution being “only a theory”:

The divided vote came as board members argued over an eleventh-hour amendment that requires the standards to refer to the “scientific theory of evolution” instead of “evolution.”

The amendment, which supporters refer to as the “academic freedom proposal,” was unveiled late Friday. Education Commissioner Eric Smith recommended the amendment, which won praise from religious groups and conservative lawmakers….

The changes were hailed as a victory by a group of parents, educators and lawmakers who insisted that evolution was far from an iron-clad fact and deserved critical analyses in the classroom.

“There are many unanswered questions about the origin of life,” said state Rep. Marti Coley, a Marianna Republican who said last week she would push a bill that would require evolution be taught as a “theory.”

People whose primary science education comes from Genesis instead of Gould often think of “theory” as meaning “just this side of made-up” and probably view this as a victory.  However, the curriculum refers to the scientific theory of evolution, and will require students to learn what scientists consider a theory to be. And to scientists, theory does not mean conjecture; the same area of inquiry can be both “theory” and “fact.”  Here’s how the National Academy of Sciences describes it:

Is Evolution a Theory or a Fact?

It is both. But that answer requires looking more deeply at the meanings of the words “theory” and “fact.”

In everyday usage, “theory” often refers to a hunch or a speculation. When people say, “I have a theory about why that happened,” they are often drawing a conclusion based on fragmentary or inconclusive evidence.

The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.

Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the Sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics). Like these other foundational scientific theories, the theory of evolution is supported by so many observations and confirming experiments that scientists are confident that the basic components of the theory will not be overturned by new evidence. However, like all scientific theories, the theory of evolution is subject to continuing refinement as new areas of science emerge or as new technologies enable observations and experiments that were not possible previously.

Thus the law of unintended consequences.  By insisting that evolution be called a scientific theory, these 21st century luddites will reinforce the massive scientific record buttressing the theory of evolution (as always, go to talk.origins if you need more information, lots and lots of information).

So we all win. Florida students win because they can now learn actual science.  Truth wins, as it does any time backward-thinkers are hoist on their own petard.  Speaking of winners, here’s the winner of the Christian Who Actually Gets It Award, one Rev. Copeland:

“Children should learn science in science class, not religion disguised as science,” said Brant Copeland, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee.

Posted in education, Science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Post-Nichol Spin Begins; Verdict: Still an Ideological Purge

Posted by Fred on February 19, 2008

It’s now been over a week since President Nichol was shown the door by the W&M Board of Visitors, and as politicians are wont to do, the post-action spin machine is running at full throttle.  Jim Bacon, for example, says that “it looks like Nichol is neither someone who can be trusted with the truth nor someone who holds the interests of the College above his own.”  In a comment to my Boycott W&M page, Amelia Peabody points to two editorials (one, two) in the campus Flat Hat and one from the Daily Press that “best sum up why his contract was not renewed.”  Many from the anti-Nichols camp note that all but one of the current BOV were appointed by Democrats (which is not particularly surprising, given that the last Republican governor left the mansion in 2002).

So which is it, incompetent administrator kicked out because he’s a bad manager, or victim of a political witch hunt?  Let’s start with the editorials from the local media, papers that allegedly turned on a President they once supported.  The second Flat Hat editorial (which is actually from November 2007) goes a long way in explaining the first.  Writing about an email between Nichol and Tim Sullivan, which may or may not have indicated that Nichol was dishonest about a revoked $12 million donation from James McGlothlin, Flat Hat columnist Max Fisher says that

We, who understand the pettiness of Nichol’s detractors and the importance of his contributions to the College, are unsure if we can still defend him. The revelations of this e-mail may be too much to forgive. So, the dream of a better College dies with our faith in Nichol. Nichol’s real betrayal, his real crime, more than anything else, no matter what they say, is allowing that dream to die. It was his dream, too. Now cracks a noble heart.

The issue of the donation clearly became a huge issue for the campus paper.  After Nichol was fired, the paper concluded that “the Board of Visitors was right not to renew College President Gene Nichol’s contract.”  Why?  The fundraising issue was paramount:

But our opinion on Nichol evolved as we studied his presidency, with recent editorials expressing deep skepticism. His relationships with donors soured and serious ethical questions arose concerning whether he knowingly misrepresented fundraising figures. Controversy made Nichol himself the issue, and this has impeded his ability to lead effectively.

As are many campus papers, the Flat Hat has always been well-stocked with children styling themselves the next Woodward or Bernstein.  College administrations are rarely the source of scandals rising to that level, so you take what you can get.  In this case, what you get is a $12 million donation pledged by a seventy-something law school alumnus but then revoked in outrage following the Wren Cross controversy.  Nichols announced the successful conclusion of the Campaign for William and Mary before news of the revoked donation came out, and the junior journalists seized on this “falsehood”, arguing that Nichol knew the donation had been revoked.  The email exchange, however, can easily be read to say that Nichol knew only that McGlothlin would not be giving any more money in the future, which would make his statements about the endowment campaign truthful.

In any event, in November Fisher acknowledged the obvious, that opposition to Nichol came not from concern about his fundraising ability or his management skills, but about his overall vision for the College:

I am saddened that this is how Nichol’s presidency may well end. I am saddened that Nichol’s enemies — who have not been fighting Nichol so much as the loss of the regional, WASPs-only, good-ol’-boy college they remember — may be brought closer to their goal.

In the end, the Flat Hat concluded that firing Nichol was the right thing to do, but their opinion is clearly driven in large part by their months-old effort in investigative journalism to prove that the President lied about when he knew that the troglodyte McGlothlin didn’t want to give $12 million to a school that was so open to non-Christians.

The Daily Press never actually comes out and supports the firing of the President, but they are clearly put off by the email with which Nichol announced the news:

But Nichol also needs to go back and read his own resignation statement one more time, when he writes, “Mine, to be sure, has not been a perfect presidency. I have sometimes moved too swiftly, and perhaps paid insufficient attention to the processes and practices of a strong and complex university. A wiser leader would likely have done otherwise.”

That is, in fact, a fair self-assessment. A wiser leader might not have written this e-mail at all. A wiser leader might still be president of William and Mary.

Even while saying this, the editorialists again note the obvious, that opposition to Nichol has everything to do with the Wren Cross and very little to do with management ability:

But there’s more to running a state-supported college than being a charismatic champion of liberal arts or a bulldog for progressive politics. The position takes executive leadership in planning, administration, fundraising, cultivating influence on behalf of the institution. There are many puzzle pieces — students, faculty, parents, alumni, legislators, governors — and it takes considerable skill to knit them together and keep the peace. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” can be monumentally problematic when steering the course of a complex college community.

Was Nichol unjustly vilified in what he characterizes as a “committed, relentless, frequently untruthful and vicious campaign”? Yes. Did members of the Virginia House of Delegates inappropriately seek to intimidate board appointees during a hearing in Richmond last week? Yes. Will his ideological opponents now dance in the streets and claim victory? Yes.

So we return full-circle to the question. Was it ideology and politics, or was it fund raising, alumni relations and management?  Nothing that’s come out in the last week changes my view that it was the former.  I have no particular affection for Gene Nichol.  When I left Williamsburg, the President was still Tim Sullivan.  I have no idea whether Nichol was a good administrator or a bad one.  Student applications kept rising while he was in office and the overall reputation of the College’s academic programs remained high, but he may well have been an incompetent, bumbling fool.  But allegations about his management ability are latecomers to this party, while offended Christians have been hanging around the open bar for a good while.  The BOV may be made up of Democratic appointees, but they remain political appointees who keep their positions only by the good graces of the General Assembly, and oversee a public university largely dependent on the public trough in Richmond.  That they kicked Gene Nichol out the door a week after Republicans called some of them before an inquizatorial board to grill them on why they hadn’t fired Nichol for messing with the cross doesn’t pass the smell test.  It may not have been all ideology, but ideology clearly played a major role.

It bears repeating — Nichol may have been a bad president.  William & Mary may well be a better place in a couple of years under different leadership.  But he was removed from office because he attempted to make non-Christians feel welcome in a publicly-owned building on a secular campus by reserving a religious icon of no particular historic significance for religious functions. He was removed from office because he refused to squelch student expression with which he disagreed.  He was kicked out because he attempted to make the campus as welcoming to a Muslim from Detroit as a Baptist from Suffolk.  You don’t have to be a liberal or champion of progressive politics to be offended that college personnel decisions were informed more by outside agitators than by concern for the education of students (I’m not the former, but I am the latter).

The BOV has the power now.  Make it clear that they (and Nichols’ successor) are going to stand up to the troglodytes now carrying Nichols’ head on a bloody pike, and this will all fade.  Do anything else, and the New PC will have won.  What’ll it be, Rector Powell?

Posted in education, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

William and Mary gives in to conservative critics, fires Nichol

Posted by Fred on February 12, 2008

Update: In the comments, Prof. Constance Pilkington, Chair of the Psychology Department at W&M, suggests shifting donations from the school to your department so as to continue to send a message, yet not hurt current students. This is a fair point.  Major-specific giving information is available on the W&M site (Arts & Sciences, Business Administration, Education, Law, Marine Science, Public Policy).

no_speechToday is a sad day for the College of William and Mary.  A coalition of conservative and Christian Right activists (most of whom are not alumni) and members of the Virginia General Assembly have successfully threatened, coerced and otherwise badgered the Board into forcing out College President Gene Nichol.  They did this because he had the audacity to say that non-Christian students should be treated the same as Christian ones, and because he refused to censor expression that the activists found offensive.  Many colleges have gone overboard with political correctness and speech codes, but now we see the opposite is no better – a decent and honorable administrator has been fired because he wouldn’t elevate Christianity to a superior position at a public university, and that’s just wrong.

Had Nichol been forced out because the educational mission of the institution was deteriorating that would be one thing.  But it hasn’t.  US News & World Report ranks the school 33rd overall, sixth among public universities and first among small public universities. Kiplinger’s ranked W&M the fourth-best value among public colleges, behind UNC and UVa. The Financial Times ranks the business school 40th nationally, and 71st in the world. None of these rankings have deteriorated under President Nichol.  Students remain as attracted by the school as ever, with Undergraduate applications topping 11,500 last year, up 6.2% overall and up 15% in-state.

No, Nichol is being forced out because he offended the wrong people, and refused to censor speech those people found offensive. That’s bad enough, but the eternally offended then tried to buy his silence, according to the soon to be ex-President:

I add only that, on Sunday, the Board of Visitors offered both my wife and me substantial economic incentives if we would agree “not to characterize [the non-renewal decision] as based on ideological grounds” or make any other statement about my departure without their approval. Some members may have intended this as a gesture of generosity to ease my transition. But the stipulation of censorship made it seem like something else entirely. We, of course, rejected the offer. It would have required that I make statements I believe to be untrue and that I believe most would find non-credible. I’ve said before that the values of the College are not for sale. Neither are ours.

Unlike most of the people beating their chests over Gene Nichol, I am an alumnus of the College.  I’ve supported the school financially.  Not any more.  Not because I’m a big fan of Gene Nichol, but because an institution claiming to believe that “excellence in teaching is the key to unlocking intellectual and personal possibilities for students” has no business censoring discourse or foreclosing opportunities.  The College recently sponsored a speech by evangelical attack dog Jay Sekulow, who once argued that taxpayers had no right to challenge faith-based programs on constitutional grounds because “that’s part of the deal, part of being American. You can’t simply object because your portion of your tax dollars is going to something you really don’t like. It’s just not the way the system works.”  Apparently that’s not true if it’s the evangelicals who don’t like it.

Full text of Nichol’s email follows…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in education, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Don’t criticize Jesus if you work for ESPN

Posted by Fred on January 23, 2008

ESPN has imposed some undefined discipline on Dana Jacobson, co-host of First Take, for comments she made at a roast for Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg.  ESPN doesn’t say what she said, describing it only as “characterizations of the Notre Dame football program.”  The Chicago Tribune says that her comments included “F*** Notre Dame,” “F*** Touchdown Jesus” and “F*** Jesus,” presumably to skewer well-known Golden Domer Golic.

In bad taste perhaps, but it’s a little sad that ESPN disciplined an employee because she offended an unspecified “Catholic organization.”

Posted in Sports, TV | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

AFA says PetSmart doesn’t exclude non-Christians enough

Posted by Fred on November 15, 2007

Another day, another whiny missive from the American “Family” Association complaining that retailers don’t do enough to exclude non-Christians. Today, it’s PetSmart:

At PetSmart, Christmas doesn’t exist. It is not to be found anywhere on their Web Site. AFA checked out the local PetSmart store and there was no Christmas there, either.

A search on PetSmart’s home page found 252 references to “holiday.” It also found 43 references to “Christmas.” But, alas, this is very misleading. When you click on “Christmas” you are directed to a page containing the same gifts you get when you search for holiday. Of all the items that pop up when you search for Christmas, not a single one mentions Christmas or is identified as being a Christmas gift.

waronxmas.pngI have to say that this has me puzzled. The AFA has always insisted that retailers are hating on Christians if they use the word “holiday” instead of the word “Christian.” That’s bad enough, given that it seems perfectly reasonable for a retailer to attempt to market to all customers, even the ones who don’t buy into the whole Jesus thing.  It’s not as if PetSmart has a Festivus section but no Christmas section.  Now they seem to have gone a step further, and demand that retailers have Christian-only merchandise, accessible by searches for “Christmas” but not “holiday.”  That’s just absurd, but not surprising coming from the bigots at the AFA.  Once again: there is no War on Christmas. Retailers just want to sell lots of stuff, even to Jews and atheists.

It does make one wonder – what would these special Christmas, not holiday, pet gifts look like?  Sackcloth doggie sweaters or a cat-sized cilice maybe.

Posted in Politics, religion | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Bogus “War on Christmas” Complaints Begin Again

Posted by Fred on October 12, 2007

waronxmas.pngIf it’s the fourth quarter of the year, it must be time for the American “Family” Association’s annual complaint about the non-existent War on Christmas. Today’s entry, courtesy of an AFA Action Alert email¹ (ooh, how self important that Alert sounds):

Mrs. Fields bans Christmas from their products

Dear Fred,

Mrs. Fields has become the first company to ban Christmas from their products and promotion for this year.

When Diane H. of Michigan called Mrs. Fields and asked to speak with a supervisor in customer service about why they banned Christmas, the supervisor told Diane that they do not offer anything with Merry Christmas because they don’t want to offend anyone.

Take a look at Mrs. Fields Holiday Gift Preview by clicking here. In the “search” bar, type in the word “Christmas.” But don’t expect to find any reference to Christmas. (If you do, it has been added since this letter was written.)

Mrs. Fields wants the business of Christians who celebrate Christmas, but they don’t mind if they offend Christians.

It is true that you can’t buy a Mrs. Fields cookie tin with the words Merry Christmas or a picture of Jesus on it (the secondary complaint of the AFA being, of course, that merchants take the religion of out Christmas, the Reason for the Season and all that, assuming you ignore that inconvenient pagan winter solstice holiday that the early Christians appropriated). You can’t get a Hanukkah menorah or the usual Kwanzaa color pattern, either. Or a Festivus pole. Mrs. Fields, like all merchants, tries to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible, so it offers Seasons Greetings and Happy Holidays and Peace on Earth cookie tins. They certainly haven’t stopped you from using Merry Christmas in your gift card, if that’s what floats your mythical ark.

The AFA and its ilk need to get over themselves. That Mrs. Fields or whomever next week’s Action Alert is about chooses not to affirm your particular belief system doesn’t mean they’re at war against you. That they’re not enabling your proselytizing should not cause offense. But of course it does, because what the AFA really wants is societal affirmation of the One True Faith (and disaffirmation of Judaism, Islam, Atheists, Buddhists, homosexuals, non-whites, sex, adult language and whatever else they’re offended by). That’s not my family, is it yours?

¹ I get these emails because I like to appropriate AFA’s email system to send messages of support to their targets, such as Ford (vilified by the AFA for actually marketing to homosexuals). I also appropriate the complaintbot of the Parents Television Council to send messages to the FCC with which the PTC would not approve.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Should have issued a DMCA takedown notice on himself

Posted by Fred on September 28, 2007

According to the Times-Dispatch, Dr. Esam Omeish, recently appointed by Gov. Kaine to a state immigration commission, resigned from the commission after a controversial video featuring Dr. Omeish was discovered on YouTube.

Online videos show Omeish at an August rally in 2006, shortly after Israel invaded Lebanon, condemning the “illegal and repugnant” occupation by Israel of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza.

He condemns the “Israeli war machine,” the “barbaric, indiscriminate” attacks by Israel and accuses Israel of “massacres and genocides” committed against the Palestinian people. He says Congress is guided by an “Israeli agenda.”

I have no interest in turning this into a political blog, so draw your own conclusions about the good doctor. Several other things about the story are more interesting to me. I hadn’t seen Muslim-American as a demographic designation before. You don’t see Christian-American or Buddhist-American, so using Muslim-American suggests that we now consider adherence to Islam to have moved beyond the religious to the political – only Jews and (maybe) Sikhs are generally thought of this way. Not exactly a novel concept, but interesting. The T-D’s archives find 36 references to Muslim-American, most references to the Muslim American Society.

Also interesting is that YouTube will officially become part of the vetting process. Of course, it probably should have been part of that process already, but it’s nice of Google to provide such a useful government service. Finally, it’s interesting that the video was called to the governor’s attention by a caller on his radio show.  Those shows are generally beyond useless, but not this time.

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »