Georgia State Senator Barry Loudermilk peddling David Barton’s nonsense

Ignorance is one thing. While potentially bad, it’s easily curable.

Willful ignorance is quite another.

What does it mean to be willfully ignorant? It means that one is closed to anything factual that might contradict one’s own notion of reality. The evil in that latter sinister brand of ignorance is that often it’s meant to purposefully mislead, dupe, delude, or fleece those too stupid or too lazy to seek the truth on their own – or too willing to let misinformation confirm their own biases. Willful ignorance begets willful ignorance and so on.

Right Wing Watch uncovered a real world example of willful ignorance by way of Georgia State Senator Barry Loudermilk. Loudermilk was pedaling some David Barton inspired malarkey on TBN’s Praise the Lord television show, which is to say that Loudermilk was butchering American history. The link to the Right Wing Watch page and to Loudermilk’s “interview” is here if you’re willing to watch it without throwing something.

For those who may not recall (or who have managed to block him from your brain), David Barton is the guy whose own publisher pulled his book in 2012. The book, ironically titled The Jefferson Lies, was in fact full of lies about Jefferson and was pulled for gross historical inaccuracies. The statements from the Christian publishing company Thomas Neslon are worth repeating:

“[We were] contacted by a number of people expressing concerns about The Jefferson Lies. We took all of those concerns seriously, tried to sort out matters of opinion or interpretation, and in the course of our review learned that there were some historical details included in the book that were not adequately supported.”

According to an article in Publishers Weekly Nelson “recalled copies of the book in retail stores, asked online retailers to stop selling it, and suspended printing and distribution.”

One might think that if a Christian book publisher pulls its own book from circulation for historical inaccuracy, that might be enough to dissuade a State Senator from parroting Barton’s crazy version of American history on television (this in spite of the potential for high rates of historical illiteracy in the audience).

Alas, but this is a Tea Party America, so why not just keep spouting the BS if there are ratings and votes to be gained? After all, if famous American history scholars like Michelle Bachmann and Mike Huckabee defend the accuracy of the work, why not Wayland Baptist University graduate Barry Loudermilk? He does have a Bachelor’s of Occupational Education & Information Technology after all, which surely makes him an expert in early American history.

The problem with this is in the sophisticated delivery of such egregious misinformation. In a nutshell, Barton and other Christian evangelicals want to rewrite colonial political thought. For example, they contend that the founders developed their brilliant concept of separation of powers – which is so vital to our democracy – from scripture. According to them, the founders read Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” and determined that yes, man can be deceitful. They then went on to search the Bible for an adequate means to counter man’s natural deceit, which means the founders had to backtrack to the book of Isaiah, where in 33:22 it says, “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; it is he who will save us.”

I can almost picture Jefferson shouting eureka!

“Well look at that James,” Jefferson might have said to his friend James Madison over a home brew, “we need a government with three branches to ensure checks and balances! It’s right here in Isaiah!”

Madison might have responded with some trepidation, “But Thomas, this verse is placing all power in one King is it not? Not to mention, weren’t all the houses of Israel in the Old Testament absolute monarchies, and don’t we sort of have a problem with monarchies at the moment?”

Jefferson, being the logical person that he was, would say, “But James, you know that it’s best when interpreting scripture, to use obscure verses to illuminate the obvious, rather than using obvious verses to illuminate the obscure!”

To this Madison would scratch his head and take another swig of home brew.

Of course this whole notion is absurd.  And frankly, insofar as actual research is concerned, it might be damaging to any proper academic study of the Bible’s influence on early colonial thought.  In other words, when Barton and others take such extreme hermeneutical license to contort scripture to their purpose and make such a royal mess of things, they might actually be impeding the discovery of some historically interesting connections.

The Bible as an influence in American thought does not and should not belong solely to right wing anti-historians.

This is why an education, and particularly a secular education which teaches critical thinking, is so important. Anyone with half of an attention span who has studied early American political history with any degree of rigor, will tell you that Madison championed the separation of powers eloquently in Federalist 47 without any reference to the Bible. They will also point out that the founders drew much of their inspiration from reading the French enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu’s 1750 classic,The Spirit of the Laws.

But be a good skeptic and don’t take my word for it. Read Madison and Montesquieu for yourself.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll leave these quotes from Madison’s “The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among Its Different Parts” for the fair-minded reader to consult:

“The oracle who is always consulted and cited on this subject is the celebrated Montesquieu. If he be not the author of this invaluable precept in the science of politics, he has the merit at least of displaying and recommending it most effectually to the attention of mankind. Let us endeavor, in the first place, to ascertain his meaning on this point.”

Madison continues,

“The reasons on which Montesquieu grounds his maxim are a further demonstration of his meaning. ‘When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body,’ says he, ‘there can be no liberty, because apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws to execute them in a tyrannical manner.’ Again: ‘Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with all the violence of an oppressor.’ Some of these reasons are more fully explained in other passages; but briefly stated as they are here, they sufficiently establish the meaning which we have put on this celebrated maxim of this celebrated author.”

Surely Madison by way of Montesquieu isn’t saying that lodging legislative, judicial, and executive power in a single Lord is a recipe for tyranny is he? Yes he is. The direct opposite of Isaiah 33:22.

Given the evidence from proper historians, how can the Loudermilks, Bartons, Bachmanns, and Huckabees of the world, along with the applauding audience members of Praise the Lord, get it so wrong?  Consider the common theme in the short list below. Where did these purveyors of nonsense receive their respective educations?

  • Barry Loudermilk: Wayland Baptist University
  • David Barton: Oral Roberts University
  • Mike Huckabee: Ouachita Baptist University
  • Michelle Bachmann: Oral Roberts University (although she did get her undergraduate from a public school, Winona State University)

I look at this list and wonder what exactly were they taught in Political Science 101. Do the instructors in these schools ignore Locke, Blackstone, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Hume, Rousseau, Plutarch, etc. in favor of obscure passages from ancient Hebrew prophetic literature?

If that’s the case, then I can only excuse the students their ignorance for a little while as the truth is there to be discovered in your average public library. Eventually their ignorance must either be cured by knowledge, or it must morph in that sinister brand.

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I “Believe” in Evolution Because I Understand Why Evolution is True

darwinWhenever someone asks me in casual conversation if I “believe” in evolution or if I “believe” in global warming, my response is always an unequivocal, “of course.”

That’s not to say that questions worded like this don’t always put me on guard. I’m usually a bit bewildered because the very nature implies that there might be some reason not to “believe” in either body of science.  In my mind, one might just as well ask me if I “believe in cells” or if I “believe in quantum mechanics.” Things well studied and understood, but not necessarily seen.

In other words, I brace myself because experience has taught me that a person asking a scientific question with “do you believe in” phrasing, is probably gearing up to spring the latest creationist mumbo jumbo or the latest global warming denial conspiracy theory.

The facts remain that both evolution and global warming are scientifically solid – and that’s about as solid as anything can ever get. Given that, we should be as confident discussing these topics in mixed company as we are discussing electromagnetism, heliocentrism, or gravity.  So a bold, “of course” is the only responsible response.

To avoid confrontation in the company of scientific illiteracy, one might be tempted to deflect such a discussion in the first place.  But that would be a mistake. Science-loving layman, such as yours truly, have to be vigilant when we talk about what I’ll call “politically/theologically controversial” scientific topics like evolution and global warming.

When it comes to promoting a scientifically literate population, we have to have some guts.  If Gallup, Pew, and Harris polls on what the average person in America believes are to be trusted, then there is a very good chance that one day at dinner, or at work, or yes, even at church if that’s your thing, you will be presented with someone who bases their incredulity in something other than reality.

Don’t back down. Keep talking, keep teaching, and keep up the good work!

Why Mars Matters

Late Sunday night, August 5th, NASA scientists and science lovers across the world bit their fingernails as the USA’s latest rover, Curiosity, hurtled toward the thin Martian atmosphere at a zippy 13,000 miles per hour.  Then, through a series of fantastically planned and perfectly timed steps, the likes of which included the deployment of the largest supersonic parachute ever constructed and the lowering of the $2.6 billion 1-ton mobile laboratory via a jet-propelled sky crane, Curiosity flawlessly went wheels down inside the Gale Crater near the red planet’s equator.  It was a picture perfect landing; the pin point culmination of a 352 million mile journey. Let that sink in for just a second.

Ok, now the real fun starts. Its mission sounds so simple: to answer the question, “could Mars have supported life?” To try and find that answer, the aptly named Curiosity will start its work as a nuclear powered mobile astrobiology lab, conducting sophisticated experiments in mineralogy, chemistry, geology, and climatology among others.  It is a monster truck science machine if ever there was one.

Detractors may complain that this mission is money wasted, but the reality is the mission costs are a fraction of a fraction of a percent of our nation’s budget. The, what I’ll call “tangible” upside benefits, are in a two-be-determined status. Of course mission dollars recycle in to the economy in real terms of salaries throughout the supply chain; but long term uses for nascent technologies won’t show up in the marketplace for a while.  Space exploration has given us the lasers for LASIK surgery, the imaging technology for MRIs, and hundreds if not thousands of other advancements in our daily lives. Most certainly the technologies surrounding Curiosity will also get in to the hands of entrepreneurs and inventors ready to advance the world’s collective standard of living.  Stay tuned.

But finally, the slightly less “tangible” ROI, but by no means less important, will be the results that help us answer the outstanding questions about life on Mars.  Life on Earth and its origins is still a fascinatingly mysterious thing and whichever way the evidence of life on the red planet points, knowledge about the origins of life on our own pale blue dot will benefit.  As children across the metro Atlanta area file in to science classrooms this week; teachers now have this fantastic, real-time, science backdrop from which to draw inspiration and to breathe excitement in the minds of our future scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians.  Perhaps one of the most important lessons our teachers can impart, is that real scientists don’t claim to know things they don’t know, so admitting what you don’t know is the act which opens the door to discovery.  Hence the excitement surrounding the possibilities this mission has for adding to the ever advancing library of human knowledge and the hope that it inspires in the open minds of our children, the dreams of tomorrow.

The Challenge of the Second Amendment

A week ago, some nutcase in Colorado decided to take an arsenal in to a crowded theater and shoot a bunch of innocent people.  It’s a horrible tragedy and now that the collective national shock has subsided, the good ol’ gun control debate has begun popping back up.

Here’s the Second Amendment to the US Constitution as a brief refresher to us all:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Fast forward to today, 2012.  The Syrian city of Aleppo has been bombarded by artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships.  And  the Syrian government doesn’t even have a fraction of the fancy military weaponry that the US has. The rebels in Aleppo seem to have held strong today but the Assad regime’s bloodthirsty and indiscriminate shelling of cities and neighborhoods over the past several months have proven that the regime has no regard for civilian safety.  So the only recourse for the people of Aleppo has been to flee, en masse.

What if the  men, women, and children of Aleppo would have had a well-regulated milita? How well regulated and armed would it need to be to withstand constant shelling?

It’s easy to go out and buy a handgun or maybe even a semi-automatic assault weapon, but how does a civilian go about buying a Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopter or an F/A-22 Raptor? Of course it’s meant to be a ludicrous question, but it is also meant to illustrate my point that the tools of warfare have far outpaced the ability of a well-regulated militia of minutemen to defend against any government attack.

I totally get where the founders were on this, but in the modern age, the best defense against tyranny is not a well-regulated militia armed with assault rifles, but a well-educated populace (both men and women) armed with a vote, and with the liberty to maximize their collective pursuit of happiness.

The Age of Things

This post is as much for my benefit as it is anything else.  I’ve spent a couple of hours piecing together the various ages of things that I think are pretty darn awesome.  Estimates here are of course based on the latest science. Enjoy!

  • Age of Universe: 13.75 Billion Years
  • Age of Milky Way: 13.2 Billion Years
  • Age of the Sun: 4.57 Billion Years
  • Age of Earth: 4.54 Billion Years
  • RNA on Earth: 4.1 Billion Years
  • Prokaryotes on Earth: 3.8 Billion Years
  • Photosynthesis on Earth: 3.5 Billion Years
  • Eukaryotes on Earth: 1.85 Billion Years
  • Sexual Reproduction on Earth: 1.2 Billion Years
  • Multicellular Life on Earth: 1.2 Billion Years
  • Cambrian Explosion on Earth: 580 Million Years
  • Arthropods on Earth: 570 Million Years
  • First Animal Footprints on Land: 530 Million Years
  • Plants Move on to Land: 434 Million Years
  • Dinosaurs and Mammals on the Scene: 225 Million Years
  • Tyrannosaurus Roars: 68 Million Years
  • Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (bye bye Dinosaurs, make room for more mammals): 65.5 Million Years
  • Earliest Primate Ancestor: 65 Million Years
  • New World Monkeys (long tails) and Catarrhini: 30 Million Years
  • Catarrhini splits in to Old World Monkeys and apes (Hominoidae): 25 Million Years
  • Hominoidae splits in to Great Apes and Lesser Apes: 15 Million Years
  • Speciation within Great Apes launches lines toward Gorillas (10 Million Years), and our common ancestor with Chimpanzees (7 Million Years)
  • Strong Evidence for Bipedalism in Australopithecus afarensis (3.6 Million Years)
  • Homo habilis and First Stone Tools (2.33 Million Years)
  • Homo erectus (1.8 Million Years)
  • Homo ergaster Controls Fire (1.5 Million Years)
  • Homo heidelbergensis Leaves Footprints in Italy  (600 Thousand Years)
  • Homo sapiens (200 Thousand Years)
  • Homo sapiens Leave Africa (100 Thousand Years)
  • Homo sapiens Arrive in Australia and Europe (40 Thousand Years)
  • Neanderthal Extinct (25 Thousand Years)
  • Homo sapiens Become Last Man Standing (12 Thousand Years)
  • Agricultural Society Develops (10 Thousand Years)
  • Epic of Gilgamesh Written in Mesopotamia (4,150 Years)

North Carolina moves to outlaw disagreeable climate science

In a move that would make The Onion proud, North Carolina lawmakers have decided to tackle global warming threats to their coast in one of the most asinine ways one can imagine. When faced with potentially frightening scientifically derived sea-level rise predictions, they are simply outlawing the measurement methods.

Yes, the lawyers, insurance agents, dentists, etc. that comprise the North Carolina general assembly have listened to the real estate developers of the NC-20, all of whom surely know better than the coastal geologists who have spent their academic careers studying marine geology and sea-level.

It is the decidedly non-scientific opinion of the NC-20 that a “backwards” look is the best way to predict future sea-level fluctuations. This of course creates a nice clean un-alarming straight line with a slight upward trend which makes everyone feel good and paves the way for future coastal real estate development.

The coastal geologists on the other hand use fancy and complicated multivariate computer models based on what the climate is predicted to do (hence the term, prediction), and their models show a dramatic 1 meter rise in sea level over the next century.  Lawmakers in North Carolina couldn’t quite stomach those predictions so they literally have enacted legislation which prohibits the use of models that might scare real estate developers away.

The original house bill 819 was a masterpiece of anti-intellectualism.

The Division of Coastal Management shall be the only State agency authorized to develop rates of sea-level rise and shall do so only at the request of the Commission. These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.

The senate bill that was approved on June 7 is a slight improvement, but not by much:

[Rates] shall be determined using statistically significant, peer-reviewed historical data generated using generally accepted scientific and statistical techniques. Historic rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise unless such rates are from statistically significant, peer-reviewed data and are consistent with historic trends.

That legislation sounds a bit more scientific, with words like “statistically significant” and “peer-reviewed” but it’s still a bunch of politicians telling real scientists how best to conduct science.

The bottom line is that scientifically derived sea-level predictions are based on the effects of a warming planet, and many if not most of North Carolinia’s lawmakers don’t “believe” in global warming, ergo they have a nice piece of legislation which is tantamount to saying, “if I close my eyes, then you can’t see me.”

I feel for them. Global warming by definition is beyond the control of individual lawmakers in North Carolina and no one likes to think of their beautiful coastlines succumbing to a rising sea. So they are really faced with a choice.

On the one hand, they can continue down the road they are on. They can simply ignore what’s going to happen (most of these lawmakers will be dead and buried in a hundred years anyway). They can follow the NC-20’s advice which is to just smash and grab as much wealth as you can now, and kick the can to the next generation or two; those are the folks that get to watch all that coastal development get washed away to oblivion during the first serious hurricane season.

But on the other hand, they can take the lead. But this requires courage – a trait politicians aren’t exactly known for. One would think that having coastal areas in the crosshairs might actually create the motivation, even for North Carolinian lawmakers, to quit listening to talk radio hosts for their climate advice and start listening to the experts whose lives are devoted to understanding what is actually happening in the real world, to take the bull by the horns, and to lead the charge to combat global warming and prepare for its likely deleterious results.

To engage or not to engage Creationists, that is the question

A few weeks ago I posted this letter written by a group called Christians4Science.  The group is organized out of the Villa Rica Church of Christ in Villa Rica, Georgia and while they claim that their goal is “for children to receive an un-biased science education (good science is by definition un-biased so I’m not even sure what they mean by that),” it would appear that their primary goal is – you guessed it – to get evolution by natural selection out of Georgia’s public school science classrooms and textbooks.

I have children in Georgia’s public schools, so their efforts are relevant to my interests.

Here’s my conundrum. They don’t seem to have very much traction.  In fact, were it not for their efforts to promote their agenda of bombarding the state science standards review board survey (which is now closed to comment by the way) with anti-science propaganda which in turn got their organization picked up by a local news affiliate, I wouldn’t have known about the public comment period and consequently would have not been able to provide my own public input on the survey. Of course my input implored Georgia to continue teaching real science in science class and reminded the board that the state has been making (relatively) excellent progress as evidenced by the recent result on the 2011 National Assessment for Education Progress in science.

So given that they don’t have much traction, yet that they are a group determined to undermine my own children’s education, I’m struggling with whether or not it’s worth engaging the organization in a dialogue. In other words, does the act of debating them (or even writing a blog post about them) give them some measure of unearned legitimacy?

The group has a fairly new Facebook page that I’ve been monitoring over the last couple of days and I’ve noticed that a few pro-science folks have waded in to what I’ll call the “misinformational” muck on that page – I have not…yet.  Just so you know that I’m not throwing ad hom bombs here, the misinformational muck I’m talking about are quite literally things like links to “peer-reviewed creation science journals” that are of course not peer-reviewed, links struggling mightily to debunk Carbon-14 dating, discussions on how dinosaurs, dragons, and humans lived at the same time, discussions on the “reality” of Noah’s Ark, and so forth. 

The page is holding steady at 68 likes which I’m guessing is roughly equal to the size of the congregation at Villa Rica Church of Christ (or at least the size that have Facebook accounts).

But here’s the thing. They are either just making stuff up or propagating someone else’s made up stuff.  And rather than keep their misinformation confined to the walls of their church – they are trying to release it in to the greater population and in particular, insidiously enough, they are trying to infect school children with their very specific and completely unsupported version of how biology, and frankly how science, works.

What they are calling science is actually anti-science, and I have a problem with that. 

For now I’m content to simply point out that a group who believes dragons, dinosaurs, and humans all lived together, has an organized effort to influence our children’s science curriculum and I’ll hope most people have the same reaction that I have – ill concealed laughter.   But it would be a mistake as evidenced by the progress of junk-thought in Tennessee during the 2012 legislative session, to take this group and others like it entirely off the radar.

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