I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

There’s no more pretending, at least not way up here in upstate New York. The leaves are turning, the back-to-school sales are already over, and city folks are bringing their kids up here to start their semesters…the evidence is in: Fall is just around the corner. Here are some stories you might have missed as you scramble to store up acorns for winter:

Our ILYBYGTH story-of-the-week: Google fires an engineer for questioning diversity policy.

Other stories that floated by our raft this week:

Want to try Christian theocracy? Ari Feldman wonders if you can do it with a quick trip to Texas.

Trump’s “court evangelicals” ask the Vatican for a meet. Why can’t they all get along?

How did climate-change denialism become an evangelical belief? Check out Brendan O’Connor’s piece in Splinter. HT: DL

How did one evangelical purist hope to save the Religious Right from its deal with the GOP devil? Daniel Silliman explains the history at Religion & Politics.

Captain America, meet POTUS Shield: Prophetic Order of the United States. Pentecostal leaders declare Trump “anointed by God,” an interview at Religion Dispatches with Peter Montgomery.

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Charismatics take action…

Parents win a big settlement from a Minnesota charter school. They had sued because the school did not do enough to protect their transgender six-year-old. The school promised to force all families to go along with its new inclusive policies, even if the parents have religious objections.

Forget evolution, religion, or any of that noise. The real problem wrecking public education is the forty-year old boondoggle of special education. At least, that’s Stephen Beale’s argument at American Conservative.

Worried about Florida’s new textbook opt-out law? Relax, says historian Jonathan Zimmerman—it’s a good thing.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

As the weather heats up, so do the interwebs. Here are a few stories we might have missed over the past week:

Stanford students call for greater ideological diversity on their elite campus.

Will individualized classroom material always help students? Not always. Dan Willingham explores a new study of adaptive vs. static practice.

Poaching teachers to North Carolina from low-pay Oklahoma.Bart reading bible

Conservative evangelicals pooh-pooh climate change on religious grounds. Jakob Erickson accuses at Religion Dispatches.

University of Chicago researcher finds—surprise!—left-wingers and right-wingers read very different science books. HT: V(F)W

How to get fired: One Texas middle-school teacher gave out “Most Likely to Be a Terrorist” and “Most Likely to Blend in with White People” awards.

Republicans pressure Secretary DeVos to sweeten the education budget.

Buzzfeed claims Trump is inspiring school bullies nationwide.

How did she learn to be Betsy? The New York Times looks at Secretary Devos’s evangelical schools and those of her children.

Whoops! It looks as if Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. spoke too soon. He won’t be leading a higher-ed task force after all.

Say whatever you want, as long as it makes us look good: The University of North Carolina shuts down a history class that publicized its recent athletics scandal.

Science Missionary Flounders in Ohio Public School

It’s difficult to believe that smart, educated, well-dressed people still haven’t gotten the message, but apparently…they haven’t. It has just happened again: A well-intentioned science missionary has blundered into hostile territory. He was flummoxed when angry locals didn’t immediately embrace his message. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: If you really want to teach real science to creationists or climate-change deniers, you need to take a different approach.

Here are the details from the most recent episode: The New York Times carried the story of a smart and credentialed science expert who deigned to enter Trump territory to teach climate change. Some students balked. The teacher wasn’t prepared for such hostility. He doubled down in his attempt to help denialists see the light. Some did, but others turned implacably against him and his climate-change message.

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Why won’t you agree I’m right…?

Let me be crystal-clear from the outset. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to do a better job of spreading the word about real science. I am dismayed by Trump’s anti-intellectual climate-change denialism. I cheer and support all efforts to teach good science.

But I can’t understand how so many of my allies still suffer from the “missionary supposition.” Like the science teacher in this story, they think that the obvious truth of climate change (or evolution) is enough to convince everyone they meet. Even worse, as in this case, some science missionaries approach their mission fields with a lamentable arrogance. Students in this story didn’t like the way the teacher kept reminding them that he was doing them a big favor; telling them that he had given up higher-paying jobs to come help them. One particularly hostile student fled from the class, complaining that the message was only that she was “wrong and stupid.”

What should the teacher have done instead? Happily, the NYT called ILYBYGTH science-communication guru Dan Kahan. And Professor Kahan told them the obvious truth: Denying science is not about knowledge, it is about identity. When the people in this particular science class responded angrily to the science missionary, it was because they felt attacked, insulted, and condescended to.

Whether you’re Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins, or a classroom science teacher, the lessons have been clear for a long, long time. If we really want people to know and understand climate-change science or evolution, we need to ditch our missionary suppositions. We need to get rid of our assumption that people who don’t agree with us are simply ignorant. Or evil.

Like any teacher worth his or her salt, our first goal should be to get to know our students, to connect with them as people, not to treat them as sadly deficient ignoramuses. If and only if we do that can we ever hope to be trusted enough to talk about sensitive ideological issues.

I’ll say it again: Nothing in this prescription includes watering down science to flatter hostiles. Never would I suggest we skirt controversy in order to keep everyone happy. Rather, the smart play is to recognize our own blundering missionary history. Instead of plunking down in hostile territory and assuming that locals will rush to embrace our message, we need to take time to understand why people distrust us.

Let’s Fight about Evolution and Climate Change

Put your money where your mouth is. That’s the message Trey Kay explores in his new Us & Them podcast. What happens when creationists and scientists put up a challenge to their foes? Trey talks with a creationist and a mainstream scientist, both of whom have put up big money to lure their enemies into a losing debate.

The two sides are represented by creationist Karl Priest and physicist Christopher Keating. Priest has offered a $10,000 Life Science Prize. Anyone who can debate Joseph Mastropaolo and can convince a judge of the evidence for evolution will win the money. Keating has put up $30,000 to anyone who can come up with scientific evidence against human-caused climate change.

For those of us interested in educational culture wars, it doesn’t get much better than this. Trey talks with both men alone, then puts them together for a culture-war conversation. What makes creationists so confident? Mainstream scientists?

As Trey concludes, both men offer their prizes in an attempt to get attention for their side. Neither really hopes to convince the other.

That’s been the case for evolution/creation debates for a long time now. Some of us remember the recent head-to-head debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. As we discussed at the time, this sort of debate tends to preach to the choir on each side. For mainstream scientists, Bill Nye’s arguments sounded iron-clad. For creationists, Ken Ham made his case.

As historian Ron Numbers has documented, these evolution-creation debates have a long and checkered history. Time and again, high-profile public figures have challenged their foes to debate the issue. Does anyone really hope to solve the issue this way?

As Trey Kay explores in this podcast, it is easy enough to talk politely to one another. But once creationists and evolutionists try to debate, we quickly end up just spinning our wheels.

Mixing It Up with Pope Francis

Confused by the incessant culture-war back and forth on the issue of climate change? Usually, it’s pretty easy to pick a side. Since, as Yale Law School’s Dan Kahan argues, what we “believe” about issues such as evolution, vaccinations, and climate change tells us more about who we are than what we know. Usually, those of us who consider ourselves progressives push for more and faster action on climate change. Those who consider themselves conservatives pooh-pooh the urgency of the issue. Yesterday, Pope Francis threw a St.-Peter’s-size monkey wrench into the works with his encyclical about the environment. In this searing statement, the pope challenged all of us to take a stronger stand about the changing climate.

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Now, I admit, I have not read the full document. It weighs in at 184 pages and I’ll be sure to put it at the top of my reading list. Analysis by the New York Times paints a picture of a fairly radical stand by the Argentinian pope. In short, Pope Francis went further than tut-tutting the bromides of climate science. The pope blamed affluent throwaway culture for the dangerous changes that have already begun. What are we to do? Not just consume smarter, but change our feelings of entitlement and our endless apotheosis of appetite.

Climate change, the pope wrote, is nothing less than “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” It is not enough for us to merely cap-and-trade carbon emissions. It is not enough for us to merely “grow” our way out of the dilemma. The pope’s message is clear, and rather startling in its Greenpeace-scented tones. Those of us who follow culture-war-related developments are more accustomed to the Vatican as a world headquarters for staunchly conservative thinking on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

The new Popemobile?

The new Popemobile?

What does this mean for our climate-change culture wars? It will certainly mess up any bright lines between “conservative” and “progressive” orthodoxies. Of course, we’ve seen conservative intellectuals at places such as Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative who have long promoted this sort of less-is-more conservatism. But by and large, American conservatives might be more likely to agree with Richard Viguerie, who called Pope Francis’ statement a “confusing distraction.”

As Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education has pointed out, American Catholics have been divided on the issue of climate change. “Traditional” Catholics in the USA have tended to be split on the issue and generally have been more interested in preserving traditional religious practices than in environmental activism. Could Pope Francis’ statement push them to action?

More broadly, might the pope’s statement encourage American conservatives to consider tackling climate change as a conservative mission? What about conservative Christians who are not Catholic? Some American evangelicals have openly attacked environmentalism as a “green dragon.” Others have talked about an evangelical environmentalism, calling it “creation care” or respect for the “doctrine of dominion.” Still others have voiced more complicated positions. American creationists, for example, have wondered about their theology of climate change. At the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, for instance, readers are told that climate change is certainly a real phenomenon. But should we worry? Here is AIG’s advice:

should we be alarmed about climate change? Not at all. Yes, climate change is real, but according to the true history book of the universe, we should expect it as a consequence of the cataclysmic Flood. Also, Earth—and Earth’s climate—was designed by the all-knowing, all-wise Creator God. He built an incredible amount of variety into the DNA of His creatures so that they could survive and thrive as Earth’s environments change. Surely the God who equipped life to survive on a changing Earth also designed Earth with the necessary features to deal with environmental changes.

No one doubts the pope’s credentials as a smart, earnest, conservative Christian thinker. Might his encyclical spark a dialogue between conservative Catholics and other conservative Christians about the issue of climate change? Could an inter-Christian, inter-conservative dialogue move conservative Christians towards the pope’s position?

Climate-Change Party Crashers

I love the analogy, but I don’t know if the story sounds realistic.

Over at the National Center for Science Education blog, Executive Director Ann Reid tells a story about converting skeptics into climate-change believers. Dr. Reid tells a two-part tale of her encounter at a dinner party with someone who does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change. She explains how she made her case.

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of the NCSE. Unlike some of my fellow evolution mavens, I appreciate the NCSE’s accommodating attitude toward life in a pluralistic society. I’ve personally seen the ways leaders at the NCSE speak respectfully and productively with creationists. Instead of labeling conservatives “the enemy,” the thoughtful activists at the NCSE try to understand creationist thinking, try to see things from a creationist perspective.

Will she be invited back?

Will she be invited back?

But Director Reid’s story still sounds a little outlandish to me, on two counts.

Before I describe my objections, let’s hear the story. Dr. Reid tells a two-part tale (one and two) in which she chats amiably at a dinner party with a scientist who believes that today’s climate changes are just part of naturally occurring cycles. What to do?

Dr. Reid listens to the skeptic’s reasons, then lays out her best case. One doesn’t need to know everything about everything, Dr. Reid says, to see the overwhelming evidence. Consider just a couple of studies that show the drastic warming of the North American landmass. Species are moving north. And planting zones are shifting, too.

What did her interlocutor say?

Well, I’d never heard that before. That’s very interesting.

The savvy Dr. Reid knows that she won’t convince every skeptic this way. She’s not even sure she convinced this one guy.   But, she concludes,

I certainly made him think a little bit. I didn’t get into a debate, and I gave the rest of the table some conversational fuel for the next time they are seated next to a skeptic. Not bad for one dinner party. Give it a try! And let us know how it turns out.

Can it work? Like Dr. Reid’s dinner-party companion, I’m skeptical. Here’s why:

First, I agree that a Thanksgiving dinner is an excellent analogy for our continuing culture wars over climate change and other educational issues. But the analogy really points in a different direction.

As I argue in my new book, conservative activists have usually been able to exercise a veto over new ideas in America’s public schools. And they do so in a dinner-party way. That is, in America’s public schools—like at America’s dinner-party tables—controversial issues are anathema. It is not acceptable at dinner parties (except, of course, at really good dinner parties) to lambaste one’s fellows with offensive phrases or ideas.

Across the twentieth century, conservative activists have used this sort of dinner-party mentality to restrict significantly the advance of progressive ideas in America’s schools. Should we teach evolution? Not if it’s controversial! Should we teach kids how to have safer sex? Not if it’s controversial! Should we teach kids that boys can like pink toys? …that good books sometimes include bad words? …that every idea should be questioned, even religious ideas? …that every country has its flaws, even the USA? …and so on?

When an idea can be labeled “controversial,” public schools will flee from it in terror, as timid as a dinner-party host who has invited the boss over.

In generation after generation, conservatives have been able to maintain fairly traditional classrooms—though the vision of “tradition” has changed over time—by exercising this sort of dinner-party veto. Conservatives do not need to prove their case against progressive textbooks, or science, or literature. All they need to do is prove that those things are considered offensive by some, and the dinner-party rule kicks in.

Of course, that’s not the only reason to be skeptical about Dr. Reid’s optimistic story. In real life, most encounters like hers will go very differently, for a fundamental culture-war reason.

The way she tells the tale, her two mind-blowing pieces of evidence got everyone thinking. They exposed the skeptic to a new way of thinking about climate change. And her story ended there.

In real life, educated and informed culture-war partisans are not simply ignorant of the other side. Creationists know a lot about evolution. Wallbuilders know a lot about academic history. Abstinence-only educators know a lot about sexually transmitted diseases.

Dr. Reid’s dinner-party companion would likely know a lot about climate change. At the very least, he would have some of his own party-pleasing evidence ready to share. Instead of receiving Dr. Reid’s examples in humble silence, he would likely have countered with his own show-stopping studies. The rest of the dinner table would be left in the same position as it was when the party started: Confronted with two competing and seemingly convincing arguments, from two authoritative-seeming sources.

How should they pick?

Like most of our educational culture-war issues, this climate-change dinner party would likely come to a more obvious conclusion. Instead of fighting vehemently for one side or the other, instead of splitting the dinner table into hostile camps, most dinner parties come to a different conclusion. Like public schools, dinner parties choose to avoid any controversial subject, rather than get into a down-and-dirty debate.

Of course, I don’t get invited to many dinner parties, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Does my dinner-party analogy seem too cynical? Too negative?

Conservatives LOVE Science

Or at least they like it very much.  Or maybe they love it, but they’re not in love with it.  That’s the argument coming out of Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition project these days.

Professor Kahan takes issue with the slanted punditry that has latched on to recent analyses of social attitudes toward science. Too often, commentators inflate their claims about the extent to which self-identified “conservatives” have lost faith in scientists and scientific institutions.

Kahan's Kollage of Kwestionable Klaims

Kahan’s Kollage of Kwestionable Klaims

As Professor Kahan points out, a closer look at those findings gives a much different picture. In a nutshell, since 1974 there has been a noticeable decline in the number of conservatives who say they feel “a great deal” of confidence in the leaders of scientific institutions. Some wonks seized on this finding to claim that conservatives were anti-science.

Nertz, says Professor Kahan. The number of conservatives who say they feel “a great deal” of confidence in scientists may have declined, but the total number of conservatives who say they feel either “a great deal” of confidence or “only some” confidence in science has remained fairly steady.

Even more compelling, Kahan notes that these same conservatives rank “science” near the tops of their lists of social institutions they trust. Since 1974, only medicine or the military has outranked science as the number one most trustworthy social institution among conservatives. Other institutions, , such as organized labor, the President, the Supreme Court, education, TV, and, yes, even religious institutions and big corporations, have ranked lower on conservative rankings of trustworthiness.

You heard that right.  Overall, conservatives have consistently voiced greater trust in the institution of science than in the institution of religion.  Conservatives since 1974 have evinced more trust in science than in big business.

Check out Kahan’s argument for yourself. He has charts and graphs ‘n’ stuff, so you know it’s true.

Year-End Quiz: Do You Speak Conservative?

It’s the end-of-the-year rush for every sort of retrospective.  Can you take the ILYBYGTH challenge?

Thanks to the folks at the Texas Freedom Network Insider, we have several lists of the most contumacious quotes from America’s conservative punditry.  One list describes the year in creationist/no-climate-change quotations, one from the anti-Islam contingent, and one from the continuing “War on Christmas” campaign.

Here’s the idea: The Insider compiled these quotes as a demonstration of the intellectual outrageousness of contemporary conservatism.  Here at ILYBYGTH, we have a different goal: Can we understand what these conservatives meant?  Can we see the point each speaker hoped to make?  Of course, we know that some quotations are just plain dumb.  This is not only true for conservatives, of course.  Every sort of political blabbermouth can say stupid stuff.  But in some cases, it seems that the quips that seem the most outrageous to liberal secular folks like me actually represent a coherent, compelling conservative worldview.

If you call yourself a conservative, can you explain these quotations in terms that might seem less outrageous to non-conservatives?

Or, if you think of yourself as non-conservative, can you try to put yourself deep enough into the conservative mindset to understand what each speaker was getting at?

So put down the pumpkin pie, stop donning your gay apparel, and try the quiz!

Quote #1: Pat Robertson on the definition of Islam:

I hardly think to call it a religion, it’s more of — well, it’s an economic and political system with a religious veneer.

Quote #2: Rafael Cruz, father of obstreperous Tea-Party favorite Ted Cruz, on the connection between evolution and communism:

You know most Americans have their head in the sand about evolution. I’ve met so many Christians that tell me ‘well, evolution is a scientific fact.’ Baloney! I am a scientist, there is nothing scientific about evolution. But you know something, Karl Marx said it, ‘I can use the teachings of Darwin to promote communism.’ Why? Because communism, or call it socialism if you think communism is too hard a word, necessitates for government to be your god and for government to be your god they need to destroy the concept of God. That’s why communism and evolution go hand in hand. Evolution is one of the strongest tools of Marxism because if they can convince you that you came from a monkey, it’s much easier to convince you that God does not exist.

Quote #3: Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, complaining about efforts to imply that Santa was not white:

Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?

How bout it?  Can you beat this year-end quiz?  What did these conservatives mean?  For folks like me, can you do the mental gymnastics to put yourself into a world in which these statements make sense?  Be sure to check out the fuller lists at the Texas Freedom Network Insider.

Happy 2013 and best wishes as we slide into 2014!

 

No More Talk: Popular Science Closes Its Comments

Why can’t we ever have a civilized conversation?

That’s the lament we hear all too often when it comes to issues such as evolution or climate change.

As science pundit Greg Laden noted recently, a new editorial policy at Popular Science shuts down conversation entirely.  The online version of the magazine will no longer be open to comments from readers.

Why?  Such comments, online editor Suzanne LaBarre explained, could have a negative impact on the way readers understand science.  She cited academic studies in which readers of hateful comments had changed their opinions about the scientific content of essays and articles.  “Trolls and spambots” had a negative impact on readers’ understanding of key scientific issues.

LaBarre concluded,

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

As a result, Popular Science.com comment forums will be closed.  Are such policies draconian?  Totalitarian?  Orwellian?  Is it a symptom of defeat among mainstream science popularizers that they can no longer accommodate disagreement?

Or, more chilling for those of us who want to see more and better science education in all sorts of institutions, could this new policy be a sign that mainstream academic science has been defeated at the popular level?  That is, is this new policy a sign that small-p popular science has become utterly unmoored from its connections to mainstream academic science?

When commenters, “cynical” or not, can close down the public conversation at such a storied institution as Popular Science, it demonstrates an epochal popular victory for non-mainstream science, whether that be creationism, climate-change denial, homeopathic medicine, or anything else.

 

Creationism and Climate Change

What do creationism and climate-change skepticism have in common?

A lot, according to the leading young-earth creationist organization Answers In Genesis.

This morning we see an argument from AiG’s Elizabeth Mitchell about the dangers of climate-change science.  Dr. Mitchell is responding to the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Why do Christian creationists care about climate change?

Dr. Mitchell’s essay offers a few ideas.

First, Mitchell warns that climate-change science is based on “dubious sources.”  She asks if mainstream climate-change scientists might build their case on mistaken assumptions.  Skepticism about evolutionary science, it seems, bleeds over into suspicion of all mainstream science.  If mainstream science has been proven, from creationists’ perspective, to be a naked emperor, then its conclusions on every topic must be treated warily.

Second, young-earth creationists are committed to the idea of a young earth and, for many, a catastrophic global flood.  Arguments about the changing climate from outside the circle of young-earth creationists assume a much older earth.  Climate-change science must rest on such assumptions.  Young-earth creationists, then, have a keen interest in making climate arguments that insist on a short lifespan and a global cataclysmic flood.

Finally, we see an important difference in the issues of evolution and climate-change.  Dr. Mitchell, at least, takes a much more irenic position toward Christians who DO agree with the mainstream science of climate change.

Christians, Mitchell argues, must weigh the evidence and make up their minds about the science of climate change.  It does not do violence to scripture, she implies, to believe the mainstream science on this issue.  The most important issue, Mitchell concludes, is that

Whatever position a Christian citizen chooses to take, he or she needs to understand the present in the true light of biblically documented, scientifically affirmed history rather than uniformitarian assumptions about the earth’s past—and future.