This & That

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I’ve been intending to post on several topics over the last week, but just haven’t had a chance. So let me now say “Bravo!” to the members of Congress—especially those Republicans who had the courage to buck their own party—who put a stop (at least for now) to the ill-conceived attempt to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil companies. And similarly to the members of Congress who put a stop (at least for now) to the Bush administration’s efforts to slash social programs to pay for Hurricane Katrina relief, while giving a further tax cut to the wealthy.

And let me give a loud raspberry to Sony, for their dangerous and idiotic mission to install spyware and out-of-control copy-protection on computers playing their music CDs. I’m glad they backed down in the face of pressure, but they didn’t admit to doing anything wrong, and they didn’t promise not to try again. Now, I own a fair number of pieces of Sony electronics, including a Net MD Walkman, a mini-CD-playing equivalent to an MP3 player. I love the Walkman (though, now that my daughter has an iPod, my Walkman seems old fashioned), but the biggest drawback to it is that it doesn’t play MP3 files directly, but converts them first to a proprietary Sony format. All part of Sony’s obsession with anti-piracy protection, I guess. I sympathize with the desire to protect their copyright, but I think the best way to do that is to keep doing what they’re already doing—sell music for download at a reasonable price.

Good news at our house when a Panasonic device we call “Grabber” came back from a factory warranty repair. It’s a DVD recorder combined with a Tivo-like digital video recorder—and I just love it. It leaves the VCR back in the 20th Century, from whence it came. Besides automatically recording current shows I want to see, straight from the cable box, it’ll enable me to gradually burn to DVD all those tapes full of movies and Star Treks and West Wings and Actors Studios that threaten to overwhelm our house.

The best news is that I’m heading off tomorrow for a three and a half day writing retreat, at a bed and breakfast at an undisclosed location. In sybaritic solitude, I hope to recover some peace of mind and mental clarity, and basically press Reset on my brain. No schedule to keep, no dogs to walk, no hundred chores to keep track of. Just me, my laptop, my Walkman, and nature. Oh—and the fireplace and jacuzzi. It was my wife’s idea, and she set it all up, and I love her, and may she live forever.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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The Good

In case you haven’t heard, this is National Novel Writing Month. A group called exists to spur people on to write their long-delayed novels in just one month—this month—during National Novel Writing Month (which is really an international month, but never mind the nitpicks). The idea is to encourage people to run amok with their imaginations and write write write—full speed ahead, and damn the quality. I think it’s a great idea. If you’re a frustrated writer, check out their site.

Oh—today is NaBaUpYoNoDa—National Back Up Your Novel Day. “Know that your computer has been waiting a long time to get revenge for that half can of Diet Coke you dumped all over it last year.”

The Bad

The U.S. Senate has voted to allow drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, despite widespread public opposition. What’s this mean? It means that if the energy package isn’t stopped or changed in the House, the Congress will have voted to permit the despoiling of a great untouched wilderness area, with attendant harm to wildlife, all for the sake of a minor addition to our oil supply. It’s a fraud, though. The oil will be only a drop in the bucket compared to what we use, and despite the crowing in some parts about it being a movement toward energy independence, it’s nothing of the kind. It’s a Halloween handout to the oil companies. If we really want to move toward energy independence, we’ll start emphasizing conservation and efficiency, which will save us far more oil than this plan will give us.

Unfortunately, the current administration doesn’t give a damn about conservation, and doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything except making the wealthy oil companies even wealthier. If you agree with me, now’s the time to contact your U.S. Representative and urge him/her to stop the drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

See the National Resources Defense Council web site for more information. Or the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Ugly

Okay, I don’t have an ugly. But I do have a weird, an unexpected, a pleasant shock. Last night I did a routine check of the web counter on my SF course, I’ve come to expect a daily increase of one or two hundred on the welcome page, less on the following pages. Well, last night I found the count up by over 5000 hits. Why? Well, I submitted a note about it to a site called, and they ran a short item about it. Just a quick mention, in a long list of notes. I guess a lot of people read, because when I checked the logs, I found that was exactly where a huge percentage of the hits had come from. Whoa. Today, it was down to a mere 2000 or so. I presume it will taper off back toward normality in a little while.

Freaky, though. I hope some of those visitors find it useful.

Heit or Hype?

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Some time back, after I made a reference to Fahrenheit 9/11, blog reader Tim challenged me to watch the conservative answer to Michael Moore’s film, FahrenHYPE 9/11. I said I’d put it on my Netflix list to view, which I did. I just finished watching it.

It was worth seeing, as a comparison piece. It does call Moore on some apparently dishonest representations he made, and his unauthorized use of out-of-context footage of people who did not want to be seen as supporting his position. At the same time, the film is awash in the same kind of propagandistic representation that it’s slamming Moore for using. (Tim made no bones about this; he merely said, if you’re going to watch one piece of propaganda, you ought to watch the opposing propaganda, too.)

My original reference to Fahrenheit 9/11 concerned the footage of President Bush in the school classroom immediately after receiving word of the 911 attacks. I said he looked like a deer caught in headlights. I still say that, despite the supposed rebuttal. HYPE makes clear that Bush was silent because he was following the off-camera instructions of his press secretary. Okayyy. The commander in chief, upon receiving word of an attack on his country, is taking instructions from his press secretary. Sorry—if that’s decisiveness, I’m Stephen King. He should have excused himself quickly, and gotten himself the hell to the nearest command center. Instead, we had the VP issuing commands as to whether F-15s were authorized to fire on civilian planes.

Most of HYPE is devoted to trying to convince the audience that there is a real terrorist threat in the world—something that hardly needs proving—and to creating the impression that Moore is somehow on the side of the enemy, and that he was dishonoring our troops. That part was bilge, and a deliberate misdirection of Moore’s statements. (However, it did contain genuinely moving testimony from families about the sacrifices their family members had made.)

To my mind, the most telling moment of the film came at the very end, with the tag line: “[America] is the only consistent force for good in the world today.” And if that isn’t a perfect demonstration of the conceit and arrogance of the conservative right, I don’t know what is. Nobody else is out there doing good, just us? Okay, sure.

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Stephen King…

Intelligent Design in the New Yorker

Fortunately, someone around here is awake at the switch. Rich emailed me to point out that the latest issue of the New Yorker has an article about Intelligent Design. No, not whether the New Yorker (or New York itself, for that matter) is intelligently designed, but about the ID movement and evolution. I had actually read the article and intended to talk about it here, but then I didn’t because of those deadlines I mentioned.

Anyway, it’s a good article, and you can read it at You might not like it if you think ID is good science, but it does respectfully lay out some of the main arguments for ID, and then give a science-based critique of them.

The author, H. Allen Orr, also talks a bit about the sometimes rocky relationship between evolution and faith:

The idea that Darwinism is yoked to atheism, though popular, is also wrong. Of the five founding fathers of twentieth-century evolutionary biology—Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Ernst Mayr, and Theodosius Dobzhansky—one was a devout Anglican who preached sermons and published articles in church magazines, one a practicing Unitarian, one a dabbler in Eastern mysticism, one an apparent atheist, and one a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and the author of a book on religion and science. Pope John Paul II himself acknowledged, in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, that new research “leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Whatever larger conclusions one thinks should follow from Darwinism, the historical fact is that evolution and religion have often coexisted.

And then, in conclusion:

Biologists aren’t alarmed by intelligent design’s arrival in Dover and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because intelligent design is junk science.

I’ve just started reading Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, written by an evolutionary biologist who’s also a person of faith. I hope to say more about that later. (But at the rate of 10 minutes a day when I’m on the exercise bike—minus the times when I’m reading my daughter’s Zits cartoon collections instead—it’ll take me a while to finish.)

Teaching Scientific Thinking

Finally, I’m answering comments that others posted to the entry below, on teaching evolution and Intelligent Design in public schools. If you’re just arriving, you might start by reading the next entry down, and then the comments that others added. I’m starting with a new entry because a lot of visitors don’t drill down to the comments. But take a look: there’s thoughtful discussion there.

Okay. Following my assertion that we ought not to pretend the Intelligent Design contingent doesn’t exist when we teach evolution in schools, Norton said:

High school science…rarely teaches about the process of science. It usually presents the results of scientific research that has been published and evaluated by the scientific community… Evaluating scientific claims is not easy…If we are going to start presenting dubious scientific claims to high school students, we would also need to modify the curriculum to spend considerably more time talking about the philosophy of science and how different claims are evaluated.

Yes, and yes. I think there’s a serious gap in our high school (and middle school) curricula on precisely this score. There might be less time to teach facts if we devoted time to talking about how to assess claims, but I think that’s a tradeoff well worth making. Norton was lucky enough to go to a high school that had a philosophy class, but I doubt that many school do—and even if they did, what percentage of kids would take them?

And yet, all kids are headed into a world that’s full of claims, whether about the latest diet, or UFOs, or Intelligent Design, or how to avoid a heart attack, or the latest from the Hubble telescope. Not all claims are equal. But do we teach kids to distinguish among them? I don’t think so. Not nearly well enough, anyway.

I’m not talking about assessing claims at the PhD level. I’m talking about doing it as ordinary citizens—the way web-savvy people must learn to evaluate the trustworthiness of things they read on the net.

Face it, when we teach science in middle and high school, we’re not teaching most kids to become scientists. We’re teaching them to become informed citizens. They’re going out into a world that’s awash with purported facts, and they aren’t going to have peer-reviewed journals at their sides. But they might have a better chance of applying reasonable judgment to claims if they have some idea of how science is done, and why findings that have passed peer review and been supported by follow-up research are more reliable. Otherwise, why should they believe Discover Magazine over The National Inquirer? Why should they pay attention to the “scientific establishment,” which from time to time appears arrogant, disconnected from ordinary people, and filled with researchers who fake data? Why, in fact, do a large number of people in the U.S. distrust science?

When I suggest that Intelligent Design (ID) ought to be addressed in the school curriculum, I don’t mean to teach it as a co-equal with evolution, but to raise it for discussion in the above context. I wouldn’t mind seeing this happen in middle school. In fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing a unit in the curriculum addressing a range of fringe science, doubtful science, and pseudoscience. Don’t just stand at a distance and dismiss the claims, but talk about where the claims fall short (as they generally do), and how to make reasonable judgments when confronted by claims. And yes, how to recognize the boundaries between faith and science. (Not to set up one as superior to the other, but to clarify that they are different, and they serve different functions in life.)

In short, do a little teaching in how to think.

Evolution and Intelligent Design in the Classroom

I said I was going to write on producing video next, but so much interesting stuff about the Evolution/Intelligent Design controversy in science teaching has crossed my radar screen recently that I just have to hit that first. (My wife says I’m guilty of bait-and-switch. Sigh.)

“The Connection” on NPR had a good segment the other day (which you can listen to online), featuring two biology teachers, one a proponent of teaching evolution only, and the other calling for adding Intelligent Design to the curriculum. Everyone agreed, at least, that you have to make clear what science can and cannot answer. One telephone caller, after noting her own belief in an intelligent designer, went on to say that the discussion of it belongs in the philosophy or religion class, not the science class.

That’s a position I used to hold, but I’m wavering. In one form or another, the belief in a guiding intelligence is a part of the national landscape (whether it’s creationism and biblical literalism, or so-called Intelligent Design theory, which claims to apply scientific inquiry to the question of whether evolution is a blind, random process or a guided process). I forget the numbers from the latest polls, but a huge majority of Americans believe in a creative intelligence behind it all. That’s not going to go away, and how we treat it affects how scientific inquiry is understood and perceived in the U.S. I don’t think we’re doing our young people any favors by teaching the theory of evolution without any reference to the other viewpoints.

My friend Rich says if he were a science teacher, he wouldn’t want to touch Intelligent Design—because, for one thing, you’d risk being seen as attacking people’s religious beliefs, and for another, you’d be implicitly legitimizing fake science, or at least empty science. (God of the Gaps: if you can’t explain the complexity, it must be the design-work of God.) I grant the danger. I haven’t seen anything convincing yet in the science writing of Intelligent Design proponents. (For a good read on this, look at, where three proponents of Intelligent Design present their views, each responded to by a proponent of evolution. One of the respondents is Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist from Brown and author of Finding Darwin’s God, who notes his own philosophical belief in a designer, but finds no merit in the scientific claims of the ID writer.)

But the thing is: What a great opportunity to teach real scientific and critical thinking! Why can’t the question be raised? (Beyond the political agenda—more on that in a second.) Maybe, probably, it is outside the realm of what science can or cannot answer. But how will we know if we don’t ask the question? How can students understand the strengths and limitations of science if we rule one of the most interesting (and toughest) questions out of the arena? How can they learn to evaluate scientific claims if they don’t look at controversial claims as well as widely accepted claims? If there’s any value to the scientific claims of the ID people, let’s look for it. If there’s no value, let’s show students why.

Heretic! you say. How dare you insult my religion?! Wait a minute…who said anything about your religion? I’m not attacking your religion. I didn’t even mention it. We’re talking about scientific evidence or lack of evidence. Maybe science can’t show any evidence of God; that doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist, it just means we have no testable, repeatable scientific evidence. Or maybe we just haven’t found it yet. What would really be an insult would be to dismiss your claims of evidence without even discussing them.

Well, okay—maybe it’s not going to be that easy. But how easy is the present situation?

The real thorn here is the real or perceived hidden agenda. Is all this just a ruse to get religion—specifically, conservative Christian religion—into the schools? For some proponents, I’m sure it is. For others, I don’t know. It’s a real danger. The religious divide in America is threatening to tear this country apart. And I don’t mean the divide between Christians and those stinkin’ secular humanists—I mean the divide between those who want to impose their own particular brand of faith on the rest of us, and…well, the rest of us. And the rest of us includes Christians, Jews, Muslims…and yes, secular humanists.

Are we caving to the agenda if we talk about intelligent design (lower case) in the same classroom as evolution? Maybe. But if we bar the doors and hope they go away, aren’t we just deepening the divide? What are kids to think who believe in ID or creationism, but aren’t given the tools to examine for themselves whether it’s real science, or another kind of thinking camouflaged by the words of science?

It’s not an easy question. But if we don’t teach the thinking skills, we’re in trouble.

For more on this, read The Slate’s What Matters in Kansas: The evolution of creationism and Creation vs. Intelligent Design: Is There a Difference?

Inauguration Day — Sorry, World!

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I wasn’t going to get into politics right away, but the calendar snuck up and forced my hand. So I’m here to say to the rest of the world–I’m really, really sorry. We Americans elected him who should not be named–well, that or we let him steal the election again–it’s hard to say, with all of the voting chicanery that seems to have taken place in Ohio and Florida (surprise! surprise!).

So many millions of us tried so hard to get Bush (oops! I wasn’t supposed to name him!) out of the White House, and we failed. But we’re not out, even if we’re down, and progressive America is far better organized than ever before. There’s hope–if we make it through the next four years.

It’s pretty much been said before, so I’m not going to try to rehash it all here. But what really bothers me most, I think, is the divide that has opened in America, particularly along religious lines. I just cannot by God (and I mean that literally) fathom why people who profess to vote as Christians would stand for this administration. Let’s do a little thought experiment:

Which of the following most represents faithful Christian thinking?

1. Lying to lead the nation into a preemptive war–and killing or maiming over a thousand of our own people, as well as upward of a hundred thousand Iraqis

2. Filling the coffers of the already wealthy (Halliburton and Enron, anyone?), while bleeding our school systems and jacking up an enormous deficit

3. Rampaging against the environmental protections that have been painstakingly put in place over decades

4. Destroying our standing in the international community through unrelenting arrogance

5. Refusing to tolerate dissent within the administration on matters crucial to world security

6. Dismissing the Geneva conventions as irrelevant

7. Uh…none of the above?

I don’t get it. Not that he does these things, because he’s a lying, cheating, conniving fraud–but that anyone, and in particular, sincere Christians, would follow him. Deception, deception, all is deception.

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