Monday, December 27, 2004

Followup to ID post

For any readers that want to dispute my summary dismissal of intelligent design: the National Academies (of Science, Engineering and Medicine) have been, since they were formed by Lincoln, the main source of technical advice to the government. They have a page on evolution & education, and an book discussing the issue (online, if you want, or else available as a paperbook).

Below is the description of this book from the Nattional Academies Press:

While the mechanisms of evolution are still under investigation, scientists universally accept that the cosmos, our planet, and life evolved and continue to evolve. Yet the teaching of evolution to schoolchildren is still contentious. In Science and Creationism, The National Academy of Sciences states unequivocally that creationism has no place in any science curriculum at any level.

Briefly and clearly, this booklet explores the nature of science, reviews the evidence for the origin of the universe and earth, and explains the current scientific understanding of biological evolution. This edition includes new insights from astronomy and molecular biology.

Attractive in presentation and authoritative in content, Science and Creationism will be useful to anyone concerned about America's scientific literacy: education policymakers, school boards and administrators, curriculum designers, librarians, teachers, parents, and students.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Hooray for the ACLU

Under the Taliban in Afghanistan, fundamentalist leaders in the government decided what religious beliefs were acceptable. In America, thankfully, the government doesn't tell us what god to believe in: Church and State are separate, and Americans are free to worship as (and if) they please.

One would think that after 200 years, people would, generally speaking, be clear on the basic concepts surrounding freedom of religion. Alas, not so. Not so far from my home, in the Dover, PA school system, science teachers are now required to teach "intelligent design". And let's make no mistake here: the study of "intelligent design" is not about science--it's about twisting science to support a certain literal interpretation of scripture.

(A short summary of ID, from looking at some arguments from proponents: there are some aspects of evolution we don't understand, and therefore G-d may control evolution. I personally don't mind having high school students hear that much, but it's ludicrous to plan to subject them to the actual arguments between ID proponents and opponents, which quickly degenerate into technical discussions of how the expression levels of groups of related genes are regulated in metazoans, the connections between ontogeny and phylogeny, and such. It's also clean that mainstream biologists are not in any way divided on the correctness of the "theory" of evolution.)

Anyway - not surprisingly, the requirement to teach "intelligent design" was not spearheaded by science teachers. The main instigator is a school board member William Buckingham, a self-described born-again Christian and a believer in creationism.

The Pennsylvania branch of the ACLU is now litigating against the Dover school board, and according to my wife (who volunteers and sometimes works there) they've been getting a bunch of letters with varying degrees of hostility. A recent letter in my local paper accused the ACLU of trying to suppress freedom of speech by their lawsuit.

I've sent a shorter version of this blog to my local paper, but that letter-to-the-editor is a classic case of "unclear on the concept": it's not a matter of what gets spoken, but what gets taught to our children. William Buckingham is free to speak as he likes, and I'm sure the ACLU would be all over anyone that said otherwise. But in America, neither he, nor any other religious leader, has the right to use the public schools as a pulpit.

When my family moved to Pittsburgh we immediately chose a synagogue, at which our children now receive religious instruction twice a week. The wonderful thing about that choice is that it was our choice, and ours alone. Americans who sincerely care about religion should be grateful to the ACLU for helping to defend the right of every American to find G-d his or her own way - not through the government.

A few days ago Christmas carollers, I guess as a protest against the godless liberals, came by the ACLU and sang, along with their other tunes, "We can't wish you a Merry Christmas, we can't wish you a Merry Christmas, we can't wish you a Merry Christmas, because the ACLU says no." And the ACLU office workers listened cheerfully, then invited the carollers in for coffee and fudge. (And it was excellent fudge, by the way.) I doubt there will a Christmas-miracle change for heart for anyone, but you never know. After all, Rush Limbaugh has now become an ardent privacy advocate.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Back Again

Well, it's been weeks since I did this. Blame it on the election - no, I wasn't depressed, particularly. I've been trying to get some work done again! Yes, I'm taking courses this fall, but that doesn't make me a student. Obsessing over news and tramping around Greenfield drumming up Democratic voters is no hobby for an up-and-coming academic.

But I can obsess a little bit, can't I? Friends and family have probably heard my famous airline story, which starts with me (with wife & two kids) grumpily boarding a long-delayed flight to my inlaws in November, 2001 and finding out that pillows and blankets were not available "for security reasons". Wife and I stare at each other with a silent look of "huh? what sense does THAT make?" and I say, with my usual total lack of tact and foresight: "Maybe they want us all to be alert so we can defend the plane if there's a hijacking." The stewardess rushes over - "Shhh! you can't say that word!". Now, I know I can't threaten, or even joke about threatening, or even joke about weapons. But I wasn't. There are words you can't say? George Carlin now has a "seven words you can't say in flight" routine? So anyway, I ask her nicely to tell me what the new rules are about what I can and can't say. There's more to the story, involving being hauled off planes and ID checks and men with guns and army fatigues, but let's not get too involved. Really, I should have just shut up to start with, stopped kvetching, and not caused trouble - did I mention this was Nov 2001?

What bugged me at the time was that I thought they should have at least told me their durn rule. After all, how can I follow it if I don't know what it is? if ignorance of the law is no excuse, and the law is a secret, I mean, what sense does that make? But after all, everyone at the airlines was worked up, about losing their jobs if nothing else. And it was November, 2001.

Turns out that three years later, the situation is still pretty much the same. A conservative congresswoman ran afoul of the TSA last month, when she asked to see the legal authorization for a pat-down search. So, they wouldn't let her fly. The article I cited notes:

in a qualitatively new development in U.S. governance, Americans can now be obligated to comply with legally-binding regulations that are unknown to them, and that indeed they are forbidden to know. This is not some dismal Eastern European allegory. It is part of a continuing transformation of American government that is leaving it less open, less accountable and less susceptible to rational deliberation as a vehicle for change.

Part of a disturbing trend, another part of which is the continuing erosion of any sort of privacy. Laser printers have been quietly augmented so that the government can find out what printer has produced what document:

Next time you make a printout from your color laser printer, shine an LED flashlight beam on it and examine it closely with a magnifying glass. You might be able to see the small, scattered yellow dots printer there that could be used to trace the document back to you...Governments, including the United States, already use the hidden markings to track counterfeiters.

Freedom of the press, right, that's in the Bill of Rights. But the ability to anonymously print a flyer and distribute it seems to be disappearing, if indeed it's not already gone. Say what you like, but remember, they're watching...

And who is being watched? I certainly support tracking counterfeiters. But it appears to me that our ability to observe - to infringe on privacy - is far outpacing our ability to hide - to protect privacy. I would have guessed the opposite would happen, technically. I think the upshot of all this is that we need to really, really watch the watchers. Are they looking out for bad guys? or spying on Quakers and peaceniks? it's up to all of us to make sure.