FRC Wants 'Controversy' Over Holocaust, Bigfoot, UFO's, and Elvis Taught in Schools ?
Bruce Wilson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 02:21:48 PM EST
picture of UFO, circa 1952Aired last Wednesday and scheduled again for the 10PM to Midnight slot this evening, a segment entitled "God, Faith, and Hard Science" on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees show featured Robert Boston of Americans United For The Separation of Church and State and Charmaine Yoest of the Family Research Council sparring over what should be included in the science curriculum of American public schools [ here's a transcript ] The segment has gotten fair play in the blogosphere, on PZ Meyers' Pharyngula and elsewhere, and I would like to highlight an aspect of what Dr. Yoest said that intrigues me. Now, I want to preface this by saying that I haven't been able to reach the Family Research Council to verify that Dr. Yoest was actually speaking as an official representative for the FRC... [ note : don't miss the Blogswarm Against Theocracy this April 6-9 ]
Today is Good Friday and the FRC offices shut down today at noon in observance of the religious holiday. But Dr. Yoest's statements on Anderson Cooper seemed to indicate that Yoest advocates including discussion about the existence of Bigfoot and UFO's, or whether Elvis is still alive and in hiding or not, in America's public school science curriculum: will "teaching the controversy" ruin public schools with pseudoscience, or does it amount to an exciting new pedagogical approach to making education more connected to American public belief ? Bigfoot, UFOs, and Elvis ? In science classes ? Yup.

That's the logical implication of what Dr. Yoest said to Andersoon Cooper. Here's the relevant part of the discussion:

COOPER: Do you want your children -- Charmaine, do you want your children to be exposed to a belief which the scientific community has disproven? I'm not saying that they have disproven all of this. But, in certain cases, I mean, some things clearly...

YOEST: Sure.

COOPER: ... have been disproven.

YOEST: Sure.

COOPER: Things which have been clearly scientifically disproven, do you still want them taught?

YOEST: Well, absolutely. That would -- that would come in, in a history of science, in a philosophy of science.

That's why I'm saying, there's different kinds of classes. So, we're talking about kind of a broad array of things. Your kids need to know what opinions are out there and -- and -- and see what the evidence is, consider the evidence.


bigfootCOOPER: So, for other subjects in a science class that people disagree on, but that have been disproven, the kids should be taught those as well?

YOEST: Sure.

COOPER: They should -- they should -- they should know that there are other people who disagree on... YOEST: Absolutely.

COOPER: ... just about every scientific issue?

YOEST: I'm not afraid of my kids knowing about any controversy that is out there, as long as you put the evidence on the table and consider what -- what the debate is. That's what education is all about, is having a vigorous debate. [emphasis added]

Now, I'm quite sure this never crossed Charmaine Yoest's mind, but her position on "teaching the controversy" could be interpreted to mean that American public school science curriculum should include treatment of the "controversy" over the standard figures cited for estimated death tolls in the Holocaust. Or, on a lighter or even somewhat comical note, on the 'controversy' over whether Copernicus might have been wrong such that the Earth really does lie at the center of the Universe.

I don't think Yoest wants to advocate that Holocaust denial be taught in America's classrooms, even to be disproved ; I'll venture that assumption, bearing in mind that I still need to clarify that point with Dr. Yoest herself, and even if so I won't ascribe that position to the Family Research Council until I can get through to an FRC spokesperson who can clarify the FRC's position on these matters.

So, provisionally for now, I'm assuming that the FRC doesn't advocate that "controversies" over the Holocaust death toll or about Geocentrism, how the Sun really revolves around the Earth, should be taught in public schools or included in science curriculum. I'm going to apply some common sense reasoning here in th form of a "fringe theory" dictum that controversies which get included in science curriculum must at the very least be held by substantial minorities of Americans. I'll pick an arbitrary cutoff : 10%.  If fewer than 10% of Americans hold a view, then the controversy is too "fringe" to merit inclusion in school curriculum

OK, now that I've got that one cleared up, we can proceed :

If simply asked whether they believe in God or not, 90% of Americans will answer that they do believe in God. But, when asked if they're sure God exists or not, only 58% say they're sure. So, it would seem to me that a logical extension of Charmaine Yoest's ( and maybe the FRC's ) position would be that any science curriculum chapter addressing the controversy over "Intelligent Design" should also include a subsection entitled "Does God Exist ? : Weighing the Evidence".

Elvis PresleyMoving right along, let's look at some other controversial subjects.

About 35% of Americans believe the following :

Bigfoot is real
UFO's exist
Elvis Presley is still alive ( "The King, the King !" )

So, based on Charmaine Yoest's reasoning, it would seem appropriate to include treatment of the controversy over those beliefs in public school science curriculum, and there's no question whatsoever that the curriculum should address the controversy on whether ESP is real or not - a hefty 60% of Americans believe in Extra Sensory Perception (according to a 2002 National Science Foundation poll). Case closed.

But, there's one controversial area that merits, without a doubt, inclusion in the Nation's science curriculum for the fact that a higher fraction of Americans believe in the idea than the percentage of Americans who believe God does, without a doubt, exist:

About 84% of Americans now believe there has been a conspiracy, by the US government and the Bush Administration, to either hide foreknowledge of the impending September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or actively lie about the the US government role in those attacks.

9-11That's a pretty whopping percentage, and so by Charmaine Yost's logic September 11 conspiracy theories should get lots and lots of class time. A whopping majority of Americans, distributed across the entire political spectrum too, believe in various versions of 9-11 conspiracy theory. Who are we to keep that out of the classroom ? If the subject is on so many people's minds, why not work it into curriculum in creative ways ?

For example, students in high school physics classes could translate the physics involved in the crash of a large commercial passenger jet head on into the Pentagon into both kinetic energy equations and into more challenging considerations involving applied materials science : where did the plane wings go ? Did they vaporize on impact ? Could the jet engines on the plane wings possibly have vaporized too ? What about the size of the entrance hole ?

Indeed, relegating such a pervasive national belief system merely to the realm of science and physics classes could be deemed inadequate; why not interject 9-11 conspiracy theory into other classes too ? Psychology classes could weigh the testimony of witnesses who thought they saw a missile or a small plane hit the Pentagon, in light of research on the reliability of crime scene witnesses and the known ability of human memory to change in response to suggestion. And, English or literature classes could feature sections entitled "Folk narrative of the Twin Tower's collapse" and so on. The possibilities are endless.

Moreover, since millions of Americans, probably tens of millions even, believe in some form of apocalyptic Christian dispensationalism ( enough, apparently, to justify a national lobby to bring on the apocalypse ) maybe the "Left Behind" books of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins should provide inspiration for science classes too. After all, the series has sold probably close to 70 million copies and has even inspired a video game- so why should we exclude apocalyptic end-times beliefs from public schools ? Themes from these books could easily be integrated into fairly simple lessons on physics and biology : x hundred million soldiers, horsemen and horses suddenly blown to bloody bits by the word of Jesus Christ, at the battle of Armageddon = an ocean of blood and gore y wide, y2 long and y3 deep. Or, what sort of heat would be necessary to melt the eyes of unbelievers right out of their heads ? Could it be done with microwaves or x-rays ? Why, or why not ?

The goal of making education more relevant and connected to the nation's underlying, core beliefs certainly seems, in the abstract at least, to be a laudable one. Was Charmaine Yoest really advocating for such an ambitious, novel overhaul of the nation's educational system ? And, if so, does the FRC concur ?

As I've mentioned, the good staffers at the FRC's Washington offices knocked off early today, in acknowledgment of Good Friday, and I wouldn't presume to bother Dr. Yoest on a holiday, so these fascinating pedagogical possibilities will have to wait, at least, until next Monday for clarification.

Stay tuned.

One of the main reasons science has lost credibility for a lot of people is because it's frequently taught the same way as religion. When the preacher wants you to believe unquestioningly, he prefaces his remarks with: "Thus says the Lord." When the teacher wants unquestioning belief, he often uses the preface: "Science tells us." Since proper evidence is rarely offered in either case, most people think that choosing one belief or the other is a toss up. After all, science has told us as many fantastic things as the Bible. 100 years ago, they were explaining why the Negro brain was inferior. 50 years ago, they said homosexuality was a disease. 5 years ago, they assured us certain drugs were safe; drugs that are now off the market for killing and injuring thousands. Teaching creation or evolution is far less important than the fact that, in both cases, we're teaching our kids to be believers rather than skeptics. Most students know far more about what science has discovered than they know about how those discoveries were made. They know more about what science tells us than about the scientific method needed to make those findings. And few people know why they believe anything, religious or scientific. For example, you mentioned the Holocaust. Most believe it happened, but they believe because it's what they've been told. Few could give you a good evidence-based argument. That's why we shouldn't be astonished that it's so easy for Holocaust deniers to win converts. We should be teaching our kids to be skeptical, demand evidence, and above all, to think logically. What good if evidence if you don't have a rational mind to analyze it? I don't know of any curriculum that has courses in logic.

by Dave on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 11:08:46 PM EST
I remember doing lots of science experiments in school back in the '70s, and the impression I got from that was that science was an inquisitive, exploratory, logical venture open to all. But I also learned that there was a considerable amount to learn in order to become a scientist, that scientists were highly skilled professionals who learn considerable bodies of basic knowledge, physics, statistics, basic biology, and so on, as the tools of their craft, the venture of explaining the material world. And, I learned that science, at its core, assumes there are rational explanations for phenomenon.

I agree that kids need to be taught first to think, but it's important to recognize that Creationism, as a movement, did not come out of nowhere but has been intentionally promoted, and funders have underwritten the generation of pseudoscientific arguments to back creationist claims.

In the end, faith in science is just that - faith. Have you ever seen a nuclear blast ? I haven't, so how do we know nuclear weapons exist ? We take that on faith in the same way we assume that there's a scientific reason our microwave ovens heat up our cups of coffee ; how do we know microwave ovens aren't driven by magic, from elaborate incantations laid on microwave ovens at the factory in which they are made ? How do we know there's a factory at all ?

Last October, I listened to United States Senator James Inhofe as he described, before an audience of perhaps one thousand people, his belief that Global Warming was a hoax foisted on Americans by a conspiracy to create a satanic one-world order. Thousands of years ago, the Greek Skeptics demonstrated that it was impossible to really "prove" anything at all due to the facility of the  human mind at generating alternative hypotheses for phenomenon. How do we know that there's a world outside of our doors, really ? Can we prove we're not brains in a vat ? How do we know we're not living in The Matrix ? Or, how can we distinguish magical explanations for phenomenon from scientific explanations ? And, what happens to democracy when magical explanations, mystery cults in essence, supplant materialistic explanations of reality ? What does it mean when powerful politicians and religious leaders say scientific warnings about an alleged disaster of unprecedented scale bearing down on humanity and the Earth is really a satanic plot

20th Century Cargo cults believed that rich Western industrialized nations enjoyed a high level of material wealth from possessing special spells or magic that provided access to "cargo", stuff that is. During the presidency of Lyndon Johnson one Pacific island nation where cargo cult belief was especially strong raised a sum of about $50,000 dollars as a bribe to offer president Johnson for the "secret of cargo", the special magic that would conjure up cargo and so provide inhabitants of that nation the level of material prosperity enjoyed by Americans.

So, how do I know that "cargo" - consumer goods, the stuff of modern material existence - doesn't simply pop into existence, conjured by magical spells ? Well, I don't. I take it on faith. I could research the question by visiting factories where products get assembled and by traveling to mines and oilfields where raw material inputs for products get extracted from the Earth ; I don't do that because I'm satisfied my explanation is "true".

But, in the end, how am I different from a cargo cultist ? In the end I can only only give a qualified distinction - I believe in rational explanations rather than magical ones. And how can I demonstrate that my faith in a Heliocentric Solar System is better founded than the belief, by the Chalcedon Institute's Martin Selbrede, in a Geocentric Solar System ?

In the end the Geocentric model assumes too much ; the theory is not parsimonious at all but posits that hundreds of years of scientific research and discovery, which has made possible such technological marvels as the computer I'm typing on now, nonetheless has gotten wrong a fundamental aspect of our reality. Geocentrism demands its adherents believe that centuries have passed and generations of scientists have been born and then died, yet it has only been in the past one or two decades that a tiny group of amateurs has uncovered the true nature of the Solar System.

I find that claim hard to accept because science is a highly competitive process and works in the end in ways not dissimilar to the way capitalist markets work. In science, better theories - which have more and wider explanatory force - arise in time to displace older theories which explain less. Individual scientists compete to generate the best theories and those who do attain status, favored teaching position, grants, awards, speaking engagements, and so on. Superstar scientists sometimes write bestselling books.

There is, in short, a competitive marketplace for ideas and so the claim that science has gotten the basic nature of the Solar System so wrong, and for so long, seems quite preposterous to me. It might be true, and computer laptops might be conjured, through magical incantations, out of thin air at a secret "cargo" factory inside a vast underground complex, run by aliens and nazis, hidden underneath the South Pole. Possibly. But that's very unlikely.

I have some reservations about teaching children to be skeptical - I think prior to that children need to be taught what skepticism is, because unbridled, pure skepticism can breed a paranoid culture and ethos of Know-nothingism that is fertile ground for crank theories both ridiculous, vicious, and corrosive to democracy. Democracy presumes a certain degree of common assumptions on the nature of reality. So millions of Americans believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, so what ?  Does it matter ? Well, both yes and no. Such beliefs aren't any great hindrance to getting along in modern life unless one happens to be a paleontologist, geologist, or perhaps a public school teacher. But the widespread acceptance of such ideas feeds a conspiratorial cultural miasma in which large swaths of Americans feel they are being deceived, and while it is not unreasonable, given the well documented existence of a huge "black budget" area of federal spending that's not open to democratic scrutiny or even the scrutiny of most of the US Congress, for Americans to assume a certain level of government deception.

But skeptical and conspiratorial thinking has polluted American belief in science itself and in what scientists tell us. Americans in the 1950's probably had far greater respect for, and empathy with, scientists and the scientific venture. But over the course of the latter 20th Century many seem to have drifted away from or trust in science. Where do beliefs such as belief in Geocentrism or the notion that Global Warming is an elaborate conspiracy to advance a 'satanic', secular humanist "one world order" come from ?

One answer to that question is that in the intervening decades since the 1950's, Christian fundamentalists who felt threatened by secularism and the Enlightenment itself turned methods of modern PR towards the problem of undermining the ethos of the Enlightenment that, some historians would assert, underlay the foundation of America as a nation. The project has been a startling success too : ideas that once circulated on the fringe of the American far right have now moved into the mainstream such that prominent US senators such as John McCain now court the political endorsement of rising Christian right leaders, such as John Hagee, who posit vast, shadowy, satanic conspiracies of "Illuminati" and "international banking grioups" to foist a "one world government" on America through the United Nations.

In the 1950's John Birchers who proposed such ideas mingled, out on the political fringe, with members of the American Nazi Party. In February 2007,  an advocate for such crypto-antisemitic conspiracy theory, Pastor John Hagee, delivered a Washington DC keynote address before close to half of the US Congress. Fringe ideas of the 1950's have been mainstreamed, and that is not just a problem for American Democracy simply because the the voting electorate is splitting into opposing camps holding different and clashing explanations of reality but because the rise of fringe, conspiracist ideology now threatens the world itself ; enough Americans, their views amplified by PR disinformation bought with petrochemical interest dollars, believe Global Warming is at base a "satanic" conspiracy that action to confront the problem has been thwarted, possibly for an entire decade later than action might otherwise have been taken. That's the ugly reality for much of the core ideological opposition to action on Global Warming coming from the American evangelical right - Global Warming is seen as a ruse to advance the diabolical plans of the Antichrist.

In effect, many Americans have advanced much further down the road of unreason than did cargo cultists of the 20th Century, because even a half-assed effort will uncover copious evidence that Global Warming is real ; North America, for example, warmed several degrees during the 20th Century and their is plenty of documentary evidence to prove it. Begrudgingly, all but the most die hard of skeptics have now, finally, conceded the Earth is probably warming. But most of those same critics and skeptics still maintain that the warming is not caused by human activity, and a major part of ideological core to that position is rooted in the conviction that Global Warming, as a theory, was born in the fiery pits of hell and advances, as Evolution is believed to do as well, a satanic agenda.

What religiously driven opposition to action on Global Warming implies is that many Americans do not believe that invisible gases, such as Carbon Dioxide, can have any sort of planetary impact regardless of how much of those gases spews from factories, coal burning electrical generation plants, or the tailpipes of automobiles. That assumption would hold if the Earth were flat and extended forever in two dimensions, as an infinite plane ; if the Earth's atmosphere were infinite it would not matter how much CO2 humans added.  

In effect, religiously based opposition to government action to curb Global Warming can be taken to imply that Americans who hold such positions no longer look to science to tell them about the physical world ; they look to a magical explanation in which scientists are dupes or minions of the devil who seek to con Americans into accepting a world governmental regime that will advance the designs of ultimate evil. Can science tell us how the natural world works ? Millions of Americans no longer believe that, and their numbers might be shrinking but not nearly fast enough and so arises the creepy possibility that evangelical belief that Global Warming is a theory born in hell may be driving humanity to an overheated future that could resemble hell on Earth.

by Bruce Wilson on Sat Apr 07, 2007 at 11:26:13 AM EST

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