The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

Read the label

pillsA study released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has Keith Olbermann scratching his head, some religious bloggers moving the goalposts, and most atheists…unsurprised.

The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey asked 32 questions to assess religious literacy. Protestants on average answered 16 correctly, which was also the average for Americans overall. Fifty percent. Catholics brought up the rear with a dismal 14.7 — below the U.S. average.

Top honors went to atheists and agnostics, with an average of 20.9 correct. Not surprising, really. It’s not so much that non-believers learn a lot about religion, though that is also true. It’s mostly the other way around: knowledge of religion, especially comparative religion, leads to disbelief in any version. Another argument for religious literacy, parents.

When it comes to questions about Christianity, Mormons do best (7.9 out of 12) — interesting, since many other Christians do not consider Mormons to be Christians — while Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions. Out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answered 7.9 correctly and atheists/agnostics answered 7.5 correctly. Atheists/agnostics and Jews also did especially well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion — a thing worth knowing, in my humble.

knowBy every measurable standard, the U.S. is the most religiously faithful and religiously ignorant country in the developed world. Europeans, by contrast, tend to be tremendously knowledgeable about religion (thanks in part to religious education in schools) AND very secular. Bright light doesn’t flatter the creature. That’s why all the candles.

According to the survey, forty-five percent of U.S. Catholics do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. Over half of Protestants (53%) could not correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions birthed their half of Christendom.

Fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, and only 27 percent correctly identified Islam as the primary religion of Indonesia — the largest Muslim population on Earth.

There is something to the argument that religion is not just the sum of its facts, or even of its beliefs. It is also a question of community and identity, and yes, experience. But to pretend as some commentators are now doing that the details don’t matter is simply false. If you sit in the pew of, raise your children in, give your offerings to, and proudly wear the label of a given denomination, you lend credence to the beliefs and practices of that denomination. Some of those beliefs and practices just might be harmful or fatal if swallowed. So read the label.

Speaking of Pew studies, are you even in the right pew? Take the Belief-o-Matic Quiz!
Get your own religious literacy on

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Last chance to register for Virginia PBB seminar this Saturday!

novesThe Parenting Beyond Belief Seminar in Vienna VA is this very Saturday. Only a few days remain for secular parents in VA, MD, and DC to register.

Sponsored by the Northern Virginia Ethical Society, the seminar will be held on October 2 from 1-5 pm at the Green Hedges School in Vienna VA. We’ll cover all the major issues for secular families in a religious world, including extended family, religious literacy, talking about death, and encouraging a sense of wonder.

For more info and a link to register, here.

Haad yor gobs! The Lambton Worm

lambtonworm1Enough with the seriousness. Time for another bedtime story monster.

Years ago, in northeast England, in the valley of the River Wear (rhymes with “tear”), lived a young man named John Lambton. John wasn’t much for church and one Sunday skipped it altogether to go fishing in the Wear. But instead of a fish, John caught only a strange worm, a little beastie with nine holes on each side of its head. It was too ugly to eat, so he discarded the thing down a nearby well, forgot about it, grew up, and joined the Crusades.

(Now there’s some deep time for you. American folktales are notoriously short of heroes who join the Crusades.)

Lest ye doubt this actually happened, I offer proof in the form of an actual folk song:

One Sunday mornin’ Lambton went a-fishing in the Wear;
An’ catched a fish upon he’s hook
He thot look’t very queer.
But whatt’n a kind ov fish it was young Lambton cuddent tell
He did nae wish tae carry hem,
So he hoyed it doon a well

Everyboody, noo!

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tel ye ’boot the worm.

Noo Lambton felt inclined te gae
An’ fight i’ foreign wars.
He joined a troop ov Knights that cared
For neither woonds nor scars,
An’ off he went te Palestine
Where queer things him befel,
An very soon forgat aboot
The queer worm i’ the well.

The worm “growed and growed an aaful suze.” Soon the villagers began noticing that their cows had all been milked—this was getting serious—then that the odd cow had gone entirely missing. The Worm (which we shall now capitalize out of respect) had emerged from the well and between bouts of dairy mayhem lay coiled around a local hill—ten times around the hill.

Jes’ the leedies, noo:

But the worm got fat an’ growed an’ growed,
An’ growed an aaful suze;
He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An greet big goggle eyes.
An’ when at neets he craaled aboot
Te pick up bits o’ news,
If he felt dry upon the road,
He milked a dozen coos.

Everyboody, noo!

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tel ye ’boot the worm.

Jus’ the lads, noo, nace and lood—don’t be lettin’ the ladies shame ye none!

This feorful worm would often feed
On caalves an’ lambs an’ sheep,
an’ swally little bairns alive
When they laid doon te sleep.
An’ when he’d eaten aall he cud
An’ he had had he’s fill,
He craaled away an’ lapped he’s tail
Ten times roond Pensher Hill.

“Little bairns” are children, by the way, swallowed whole by the beastie as they slept.

lambton2Many brave knights tried to kill it, only to be vanquished by the Worm (imagine that on your tombstone) which uprooted trees and brandished them like clubs. In case you were having trouble picturing giant worm battle methodology.

Blah blah blah, John returned from the Crusades and killed it:

The news ov this myest aaful worm
An’ his queer gannins on
Seun crossed the seas, gat te the ears
Ov brave an’ bowld Sor John.
So home he cam an’ catched the beast
An’ cut ’im in twe haalves,
An’ that soon stooped he’s eatin’ bairns
An’ sheep an’ lambs an’ caalves.

So noo ye knaa hoo aall the foaks
On byeth sides ov the Wear
Lost lots o’ sheep an’ lots o’ sleep
An leeved i’ mortal feor.
So let’s hev one te brave Sor John
That kept the bairns frae harm,
Saved coos an’ calves by makin’ haalves
O’ the famis Lambton Worm.

Everyboody noo!

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tel ye ’boot the worm.

Doubt ye still? The story is established as historical fact by the existence in Weardale of a hill named Worm Hill, the circumference of which is precisely one-tenth the length of a giant worm. Explain that!

slugElsewhere in the North, you’ll hear tales and songs of the Sockburn Worm, the Linton Worm, and the Laidley Worm. The huge black local slugs might have had something to do with this obsession, but it’s also a prominent thread in Anglo-Saxon legend, this fear of ending up in the diet of worms. I could make the obvious mortality point—we all end up eaten by worms—but I’ll spare us both.

(But we do, you know.)

Conversely, I figure things must get ever less ominous as you dip into Southern Europe. In Italy they probably tell cautionary tales in which magical goats lead children to invest unwisely. Must look into that.


____________________________________________
An etymological note: “wyrm” means “serpent” in Anglo-Saxon, whence “worm”–a little snake. Again with the damn serpents.

Post script: What should Taylor’s colleagues do?

A reader question on the “final” post in the Mr. Taylor series:

I’m curious about what you would say to a teacher with concerns about a colleague’s coverage of evolution. We have a science teacher who is evangelical, doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming, and “teaches the controversy” from what we hear. The problem is, I’m not in a position to have proof about what he teaches or how he does it. Any suggestion? — teacherlady

Boy that’s a good one. Teachers have an obligation to be responsive to parents. They have no such obligation to colleagues, and pointed questions from a faculty peer can (and probably would) be seen as galling presumption.

I forwarded the question to NCSE, and once again Glenn Branch provided what seems like a solid, reasonable answer:

It’s a little delicate, obviously, since this is a problem with a colleague, and there may be complicated workplace politics involved. But she should take the problem upstairs, to her department chair (if there is one) or her principal, whose job it is to worry about whether the teachers are doing their jobs right.

She should keep in mind that by doing so she’s going to be serving two interests: not only do the kids in the school need a decent science education, but also the district needs to be able to protect itself from possible lawsuit, as case law is clear. It’s difficult, we know, but she needs to do what is right, both for the kids and the district.

Any discomfort a teacher might feel in raising the question pales when weighed against those two interests.

In a later comment, teacherlady notes that the principal is also Christian and so might be disinclined to act. I wouldn’t assume that. In addition to the possibility that the principal is a sane, moderate Christian, the professional recognition of legal liability will generally trump personal leanings in all but the densest administrator.

Evolution & Art Contest for Kids!

cpeaKate Miller, the creative genius behind Charlie’s Playhouse, is sponsoring an evolution art contest for kids. And like everything that comes out of Charlie’s Playhouse, it’s clever and fun.

Kids pick an existing animal, imagine a bunch of them stuck on an island with an environment different from the one they’re accustomed to, then draw the animal after it has evolved to the new conditions. It’s a well-conceived thought problem that underlines the essential principles of natural selection in a fun, accessible way — Darwin’s finches for kids.

Kate has lined up a great panel of judges — Steve Jenkins, author of Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution; Lisa Westberg Peters, author of Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story; blogger Jenny Williams of GeekDad and GeekMom; and cool kids Caleb (6), Izzy (10), and Maiya (9).

Three age categories (4-6, 7-9, 10-12) with awesome prizes for the winner of each.

Deadline for entries is November 15, and winners will be announced December 6.

Learn more and download contest instructions

Recognizing good results

(Last in a series of six. Start here.)

appledartsI wanted to blog the process of confronting non-science in the science classroom in part to lay out a few basic principles for parents to consider. Situations vary, so principles are better than a script.

My particular situation took place in a top-ranked high school in a top-ranked district with a (mostly and so far) sane and competent school board that is in the U.S. South (Georgia) but not really (Atlanta).

Thanks to a recent surge in business transplants, the area is surprisingly diverse, including an impressive worldview mix. School administrators here tend to be smart and responsive. The Fordham survey puts the relatively new Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) for science in the top tier nationally. The teacher’s excursion into ID was somewhat subtle, though his anti-evolution rant was anything but. By the time we began our exchange, my son was no longer in his class.

Some of these mattered more than others. If I had less reason to trust the good sense of our school and district administrators, for example, I might have wielded the double-edged saber of GPS and Kitzmiller more strongly from the start. And if I had reason to believe serious incursions of religion into the science curriculum were a more endemic issue in this district — as it is, I have reason to believe otherwise — I might have used this opportunity to build a further-reaching case.

Instead, I tried to apply just enough pressure to wake the principal to a possible liability time bomb in his midst, to let that time bomb know that the clippers are now poised over his red wire, and to get myself connected to existing efforts to keep good science in our classrooms.

I know some of you wanted to see Mr. Taylor’s head on a pike at the gates of Down House, but I’d suggest it’s the wrong goal. Among other things, that creates an irresistible victim narrative for ID folks to rally around and distracts from the issue of keeping good science in the classroom and non-science out.

So some principles, IMO, for approaching this kind of situation:

  • Check with your child before taking any action that might impact him or her;
  • Keep the right goal in mind: good science in the classroom;
  • Do your homework (NCSE, Kitzmiller, district policy, state standards);
  • Assume the best for as long as possible;
  • Approach the teacher first — in person if possible (one of the changes I would have made);
  • Make sure your tone doesn’t become the issue;
  • Focus on a single question if possible;
  • Move up the ladder by step if necessary;
  • Approach administrators as allies (and remind them why);
  • Recognize that not all good resolutions are clear-cut.
  • Even without the severed head, and even if I never get my hands on those damn overheads, I think the results in this case have been plenty gratifying:

    1. A science teacher who thought he could undercut good science standards without consequence has learned otherwise;

    2. A high school administrator with plenty of incentive to do the right thing now has a weather eye on one of his teachers, as well as a heightened awareness of the issue and a positive relationship with a parent science advocate;

    3. I learned that my son is capable of recognizing bad science when he hears it;

    4. I discovered and applied to join a citizen’s coalition dedicated to integrity in science education in our state;

    5. I learned that Georgia’s science standards are unusually strong and clear, and that they include explicit, repeated references to evolution by natural selection at all three school levels;

    6. I stumbled on the wonderful story of Pat New, a middle school science teacher in Georgia who courageously resisted pressure from her community, colleagues, and administrators for 14 years to drop the teaching of evolution, choosing instead to weave it into every unit and topic in her course, and how much easier the new state standards of 2004 made things for her;

    7. I fell in love all over again with the Kitzmiller decision, which has given both parents and educators the strongest foundation ever on which to stand when fending off non-science in the classroom;

    8. I was reminded that the judge in Kitzmiller was a Lutheran Republican, which nicely blurs the bright line we too often draw;

    9. I re-connected with brilliant resources like Panda’s Thumb and the National Center for Science Education;

    10. I took the opportunity to model an approach to parent-teacher conflict that has seldom been articulated.*

    In talking to hundreds of secular parents over the years, I’ve heard countless stories of the intrusion of a particular religious view into the public school classroom. Parents are often stopped cold at the thought of speaking up — worried about the repercussions for their kids, worried about the response of their neighbors, unwilling to get into a public shouting match or even a legal challenge.

    In some situations, a public row is exactly what’s needed. If a few courageous parents in Dover, Pennsylvania weren’t willing to go to the mat, I wouldn’t now have the privilege of speaking softly while carrying the big Kitzmillian stick. If I ever find myself in their shoes, out on the bleeding edge instead of back here reaping the rewards of their courage, I hope I’d rise to the occasion.

    But I wanted to blog this Taylor situation to demonstrate to those parents who are hesitant to speak up that it’s often possible to do so in a way that is both low-key and effective, that yields positive results for the long term, and that moves us closer to the day when we can simply expect science, and nothing but science, in our science classrooms.

    ____________________________________________

    *One excellent example: Stu Tanquist’s essay “Choosing Your Battles” in Parenting Beyond Belief.

    Checking in with the Mother Ship: NCSE

    (Part 5 of several. Start here.)

    kirkAfter dropping a note to my son’s high school principal about some apparent shenanigans in the boy’s science class, I flipped open my communicator to check in with the Mother Ship — a.k.a. the National Center for Science Education. Do this sooner in the process, do it later, but do it. NCSE has seen it all.

    I started with a brief summary of events (as if they hadn’t already been following along on the blog, which of course they had), then asked four questions. Within an hour, I had a reply from NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch. He confirmed that I have “been handling the situation very well indeed.”

    The backs of my wrists snapped to my hips, and I did a preen-and-strut around my office, head pistoning, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh. An important ritual, not to be skipped.

    My first question: Is it reasonable to insist on seeing the overheads my son was referring to?

    The request to see the overheads is reasonable, he said. “It still makes sense, I think, for you to pursue the overheads, to put the teacher on notice that he can’t ignore a reasonable request like that.” He added that union restrictions might protect the teacher in this situation. Georgia teachers are not unionized (with mostly unfortunate results, from what this husband of a teacher has seen, oy!), so that is not an issue here.

    He then added a point I would not have considered: If the overheads were downloaded from somewhere (as opposed to self-prepared), they might be subject to a district policy which requires review and approval of supplementary materials. He suggested I check with Connor. (I did — Connor said the overheads were “very homemade.”)

    I spent some time on the district and state DOE websites and was unable to find a specific policy regarding parents’ rights to see classroom materials. Such a thing would be helpful, so without going into the current unpleasantness, I’ve dropped a note to the area superintendent asking if such a policy is in place.

    Second question: What should I expect by way of report from the principal?

    Not a lot, as it turns out. “You probably can’t expect much in the way of a report from the principal, who doesn’t have much incentive to share information with you (and is probably constrained by law, to some extent, in what he can share about employee discipline, in any case). In the absence of evidence for a sustained and serious attempt at undermining the integrity of science education on the teacher’s part, it probably isn’t worth insisting.”

    Question #3: Does the fact that the course was not biology make a difference?

    Hell (or words to that effect) no, Glenn said. “If Connor’s home ec teacher said the same thing, you’d still be right to be concerned! Moreover, general physical science courses are typically the first (or early) in a sequence of science courses, where ideally the latter courses build on the earlier courses; if the physical science teacher is miseducating students about the nature of science, he is impeding their ability to learn in their later courses (as well as in college science courses).”

    Excellent point. I had been inclined to cut Taylor if not a lot of slack, at least more than I would someone showing ignorance in his own specialization. But Glenn is right to note that the damage done to the science sequence is arguably even greater because it can pre-fit students with a warped lens.

    And finally: The teacher is now on notice, and the principal knows who to watch and why. Do you consider that a sufficient resolution in this case?

    “As noted above, there’s a bit more that you could do, if you were so inclined…But in the absence of evidence of a sustained and serious attempt at undermining the integrity of science education on the teacher’s part, I think that what you’ve done is enough.”

    If I encounter this again, there are a few things I will do differently. I’ll cover those next time in the post-mortem. But it’s helpful to hear from folks who’ve seen this kind of thing from every possible angle that I’ve done all right.

    Up the ladder

    (Being the ongoing story of a parent responding to non-science in the science classroom. See also Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

    skinnerHaving given the teacher ample opportunity to put his strange comments in context, and having watched him bob and weave, I moved up the ladder one rung, dropping a note to the principal.

    The principal is your ally in this, and s/he will often know that. You both have strong reasons to want non-science kept out of the science classroom. They’re not always the same reasons, and they don’t need to be. I don’t want to transfer my growing irritation at the teacher onto this more receptive set of ears. Instead, I’ll inform the administrator about the situation and be sure he knows why it matters.

    Dear Mr. Weatherbee,

    I wanted to bring a recent classroom incident to your attention. I was a teacher for 15 years, and my wife still is, so I hesitated before sending this, knowing the aggravation is seldom entirely welcome. But I also know that administrators need to know what’s going on in the classroom, especially when issues of this kind are involved.

    Two weeks ago, my son Connor (grade 10) came home puzzled about a portion of the lecture in Harold Taylor’s Physical Science class. Mr. Taylor took the class through a series of overheads, including one that said (in Connor’s words), “Experiments or evidence in the present can’t tell us about the distant past.” Though a paraphrase, this is a common argument of intelligent design advocates.

    Connor then quoted Mr. Taylor as saying that this odd claim is “a big problem for the evolutionists,” who have “a lot of little bits of bone but can never really know what they mean.” And so on, at length.

    Assuming my son might have misunderstood, I contacted Mr. Taylor for clarification. We had a very polite exchange of emails in which he added another common intelligent design argument: that eyewitness evidence trumps circumstantial evidence, which is quite simply false.

    I asked if he might share the overhead in question, and he has not consented to do so.

    I am concerned first of all that Mr. Taylor is undercutting Georgia’s excellent science standards, which include clear instructions for the teaching of evolution. I am also unclear why he is addressing a branch of science unrelated to his course and training.

    I know that this is a delicate topic. I’m not interested in creating unnecessary difficulties, including for Mr. Taylor — only in helping to ensure that science at Riverdale High is taught in accordance with the carefully crafted state performance standards and the extremely clear mandates of the courts. This includes Kitzmiller v. Dover, which noted that intelligent design serves only a “blatantly religious purpose” and as such does not belong in the science classroom.

    Please accept my thanks in advance for your attention to this.

    Warm regards,
    Dale McGowan

    Disinterested in creating unnecessary difficulties, and perfectly willing to create necessary ones. That’s the balance to strike.

    My note was sent at 10 pm. Mr. Weatherbee replied at 6:54 the next morning:

    Good Morning Mr. McGowan,

    Thank you for your email. You are correct that this can be a very sensitive subject but this is something of which I need to be made aware. Please know that my expectation is that RHS maintains its high academic standards and that the state mandated curriculum is being supported in the classroom. Since your email is my first source of this concern, I obviously cannot comment other than to assure you I will investigate this further. If I find that the standards are not being supported, I will implement corrective action to rectify the situation.

    Thank you again for sharing this concern.

    Sincerely,
    Waldo Weatherbee

    That’s a very good reply. I thanked him for his prompt response. I plan to give him a reasonable amount of time, then check in to see what he’s found.

    We’re not done, but at this point I’ve already achieved most of what I set out to do. Mr. Taylor has surely been shaken out of the complacent belief that he can spin ID-inspired threads in front of a captive audience without consequence. And Mr. Weatherbee now knows who to watch and what to watch for. That’s a win.

    While I wait to hear back, I’ll check in with NCSE to bring them up to date and ask a few specific questions. What should I consider an acceptable resolution in this case? What if Taylor flatly denies it to Mr. W? And is it reasonable to insist on seeing the damn overheads that were trotted out in front of my son?

    Dear Mr. Taylor (Part 2)

    (Continued from Part 1, or start at the beginning)

    NCSEFirst, a mea culpa. Richard B. Hoppe of the brilliant Panda’s Thumb blog took me to task for failing to mention (yet) the National Center for Science Education, the premiere organization defending the teaching of evolution in the US. I’ve been a close follower of NCSE’s work for ten years (my funny first meeting with NCSE’s Eugenie Scott is described here) and have a well-thumbed stack of their newsletters and reprinted articles.

    My plan was to profile and recommend NCSE at the end of this series. But by leaving it to the end, I give the false impression that my approach comes straight off the top of my head. In fact, it comes from years of absorbing the stories of others and the hard-earned advice of NCSE.

    Parents unfamiliar with NCSE should go there FIRST to get tips on responding to challenges to evolution education, suggestions for testifying effectively at a school board meeting, direct advice for a particular situation, and insight into the state of things both nationally and in your own backyard. (Thanks, Richard!)


    Previously on MoL: Mr. Taylor, my son’s now-former science teacher, had asked me a common creationist question: wouldn’t you trust the evidence of your eyes more than circumstantial evidence? I answered no, explained why, then asked for a copy of the overhead to which my son had referred.

    After three days without a reply, I dropped Mr. Taylor a note:

    Dear Mr. Taylor,

    I’m guessing my reply to your question about evidence didn’t get through, and I didn’t want you to think I was being rude by not responding. Here it is again (below). Is that the answer you were looking for?

    I sure would like to see that overhead when you have a chance so I can show Connor that he misunderstood.

    I appended the earlier message.

    He answered quickly:

    I have been working on a couple of research projects with two chemistry professors at two universities. Like my self they do research but they are both teachers as well. They have not been able to answer my emails to them recently because their school year has started. They are now both extremely busy. As I am.

    If you wish to continue this conversation I would like to hear from. Please call me at […] during the evening sometime. Or if you want we could meet some evening in a StarBucks and discuss science and related topics.

    Sincerely,
    Harold Taylor

    I had thought he was unable to effectively respond. I had thought he was unwilling to share his overhead with someone other than a captive high school student — someone who might be able to trace it to the teacher resources available on several creationist websites.

    Turns out he’s just busy.

    I wasn’t interested in discussing science generally, and certainly not “related topics.” I had made a simple request about something that happened in my son’s science class. I received similar requests from parents when I was teaching, and a prompt provision of context and content was always well-received. Mr. Taylor chose instead to bob and weave, then to faint with busyness.

    I am achingly sympathetic to the actual busyness of teachers. Marry one for a while if you doubt that the demands are often impossibly high. But a central part of the job is responding to the reasonable concerns of parents. And despite every opportunity, Mr. Taylor has declined to do that.

    I signed off:

    That’s very kind of you, Harold. I wouldn’t think of bothering you any further.

    If you ever do find the thirty seconds it would take to attach that overhead, I’d be happy for the (pardon the pun) transparency it would provide. Have a good year!

    Witty bastard.

    So — my son came home with a troubling story of non-science in the science classroom. I responded just as I would if he told me his math teacher called pi controversial or his history teacher insisted that the Holocaust never happened — I asked the teacher to confirm or deny the red flag. By bobbing and weaving, then cutting me off before I could raise the follow-up (about “evolutionists”) that he surely knew was coming, Mr. Taylor essentially confirmed Connor’s account and my suspicions.

    Having shown him the courtesy of hearing from me first, I can move on to the next step — getting the principal in the loop. And again, I pause for a minute to wince.

    I’ve watched and admired school principals for years. They are busy on a level that would wake Mr. Taylor from his dreams of research in a cold sweat. And a big part of that busyness is a constant stream of outrage from parents on every imaginable issue. I hate to add to that barrage.

    But I also know that by speaking up, I am doing the administration an immense favor. Feedback from parents and students is often the only way the administration can learn about malpractice in the classroom. And this particular brand has cost school districts millions in litigation. No sane administrator wants or needs that expensive distraction from the task of educating our kids, so they tend to be extremely responsive to this kind of heads-up — especially since the Kitzmiller decision.

    Judge John E. Jones III
    judgejones

    If you haven’t read the Kitzmiller decision, I’ll have to insist. It’s an incredible document. In clear, gripping, and often frankly pissed-off language, Judge Jones’s decision recounts the legal history of the debate, lays out the stark imbalance between the two sides, and deals an unprecedented blow to future attempts to insert “intelligent design” into the public school science classroom as an alternative to evolution.

    Judge Jones — a Lutheran and a Republican, btw — went far beyond the narrow confines of the case. He wanted to give the rest of us somewhere to stand and to rob ID of its time-wasting toehold in the courts. And he did.

    No time for 139 pages? Start on page 136, letter H. You’ll suddenly find time for the rest.

    Watch the NOVA documentary JUDGMENT DAY: Intelligent Design on Trial

    (Next time: Up the ladder.)

    Dear Mr. Taylor (Part 1)

    (Continued from “Science, interrupted“)

    There are a few good ground rules for approaching a classroom issue. The first is to start with the teacher. Going straight to the principal or superintendent instantly escalates things. This is especially important if there’s any doubt about what happened — and there almost always is.

    I don’t usually suggest email, since tone is hard to convey, but I used it this time to have a record of the exchange and took care that my tone didn’t become the issue. I’m trying to ensure that kids in our community are getting science in the science classroom. For that I need information, period. Is this teacher undercutting our state’s excellent science standards by tub-thumping against evolutionary theory in his (unrelated) class…or not? Is he inserting “intelligent design,” which the judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover said serves only a “blatantly religious purpose,” into a public school science class…or not? That’s what I need to know.

    If he is, I want to use the information not just to spank him (which changes too little), but to make it less likely to happen again in any science classroom in the district.

    It’s best to focus on a single question. His rant about “evolutionists” can’t be explained away, so there’s no need to give him an opportunity to muddy it. I stuck that one in the file for later. First, I wanted to check on that other red flag.

    “Dear Mr. Taylor,” I wrote:

    I was so pleased to see that my son Connor is taking science this year. He’s always had a great interest in the subject, and we often discuss what he learns in class each day.

    Last Tuesday he came home a bit puzzled over something from the lecture, and I’m hoping you can clarify it. I’m puzzled as well, so perhaps something was lost in the translation.

    He recalled you saying something like this: “Experiments (or evidence) today can’t tell us anything about what happened in the distant past. Since no one was there to see it, we can only guess.”

    I’m not a science educator myself, just a fan, so I’d appreciate your clarification. It seems to me that much of science is devoted to examining the present for clues about the past. I remember learning about the 19th century debate between catastrophism and uniformitarianism, for example, two theories that attempted to understand Earth’s past by examining present clues. A strong consensus eventually converged on uniformitarianism, which is now the cornerstone of modern geology.

    Can you point me to a citation or two so I can further explore this idea that we can’t use evidence in the present to understand the past? Or, if he misheard, I’d appreciate knowing that.

    Best,
    Dale McGowan

    I Googled him for kicks that night (as I’m sure he Googled me). Found him on a social networking site of a sort. “I love God,” said the first sentence of his self-description. “He is the center of my life.” Of course this alone is not the slightest problem. I had a dozen colleagues and friends in my teaching days who were Christians and brilliant science educators. But combined with the odd evidentiary notion and the anti-evolution rant, I was starting to get the picture about Mr. T — a probably decent, hardworking man who is letting his private views compromise his professional responsibility to the kids in this community.

    He replied the next day:

    You can most definitely use evidence found in the present to understand some things that have happened in the past. Just like in law evidence found in the present can help prove a crime that occurred in the past. That would be nonsense to think otherwise. Let me ask you this question. Which would be considered more reliable evidence to you, you personally seeing something happen in front of you over and over again or you not seeing this event happen but you find circumstantial evidence indicating the event happened?

    Mr. Taylor

    Even without citations to the Institute for Creation Research, there’s our smoking gun. This is a hamfisted set-up for a creationist punchline: Evolution relies on “mere” circumstantial evidence, while God witnessed creation and wrote about it in his Book.

    I replied, answering his question but quickly returning to mine:

    Dear Mr. Taylor,

    Oh good, thank you. I suppose he misheard. One way to be sure — he said it was on an overhead. Perhaps you can share that to help clear it up?

    Your question is an interesting one. First, I’d note that what seems reliable to me is often not, including the apparent evidence of my eyes. That’s why eyewitness testimony is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the U.S. Circumstantial evidence is often misrepresented in popular culture to mean “weak” when it actually means “indirect.” DNA is circumstantial, yet one of the strongest types of evidence.

    To answer your question: If my eyes told me Mary entered an apartment over and over, but the DNA indicated it was Susan, I would certainly go with the circumstantial evidence, as would the legal system.

    Another example: my son witnessed your statement about our inability to know the past from the present, but I’d like to see the circumstantial evidence of the overhead — when you have a minute.

    I do appreciate your time and help.

    No answer for three days. Apparently I spoiled his punchline.

    (Continued.)