Why Republican science isn’t the same as regular science

Why Republican science isn’t the same as regular science

Science is a way of learning things about the world around us. Over the millennia, it’s done some pretty great things for us. It’s taught us how to control the flow of water, how to construct permanent dwellings, how to safely dispose of our own wastes (mostly), what the lights are in the sky, and that was just the beginning. In the last century-and-a-half, we’ve learned about how life evolved on this planet over the course of 4.5 billion years. In the last 50 years, we’ve learned about the greenhouse effect and how rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, particularly as a result of human activities are wreaking havoc on the world’s climate. Over a slightly-longer interval, roughly the last 80 years, essentially one human lifetime, we’ve developed many of the medicines that treat the afflictions that plague us as a species.

Among those medicines are the vaccines that we’ve used to treat everything from measles to HPV to hepatitis to polio. Many of these diseases have been essentially eradicated from the Western world, thanks to the pervasive use of vaccines to effectively immunize populations and prevent their constituents from getting sick and dying from the illnesses. Well, that was true until recently, anyway. By now, everyone’s heard about the measles outbreak linked to Disney World in Anaheim and believed to be the result of parents refusing to vaccinate their children with the standard MMR triple vaccine according to the prescribed schedule. Vaccine denialists, people who have convinced themselves despite all evidence to the contrary, that vaccines are harmful and cause diseases, are a bipartisan group: liberals who don’t trust “big pharma” and have been duped by listening to anecdotal evidence provided by parents of people with autism spectrum disorder make for strange bedfellows with conservatives who espouse small government and “parental choice” (a phrase which, from what I can tell, pretty much means whatever you want it to mean). However, it is uniquely right-wing Republican politicians who have made bold stands against the idea of mandatory vaccination: presidential hopefuls Chris Christie and Rand Paul have made statements, which they’ve made floundering efforts to walk back to some extent, regarding the need to vaccinate children against deadly threats. Presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and current president Barack Obama, on the other hand, have made unequivocal statements in favor of vaccinations for all. What are we to make of this?

As I said earlier, science is a tool that teaches us about the world around us. It’s a fact-finding construct so its insights are inherently descriptive but not prescriptive. As citizens we have to take the information science provides to us and make a simple calculus: do we accept its truth and adjust our policies accordingly or do we reject it (or cherry-pick it) in the hope of short-term gains despite what science is telling us? The far left and the far right have this in common: for different reasons, they don’t trust science or scientific consensus and are more comfortable with what their religious or alternative-medicine or celebrity authorities tell them. However, the far left is rarely represented in mainstream politics these days (despite what Rush Limbaugh would have you believe), while the far right has gotten louder and more accepted by mainstream right-wing politicians as the old GOP “big tent” seems to get ever tinier.

We are seeing tangible and concrete evidence now of the consequences of cherry-picking science. People are getting sick and dying because they don’t understand the concept of herd immunity and how everyone getting vaccinated who physically is able to be vaccinated protects the entire population of those who may be exposed to a pathogen. Or perhaps they’ve listened to Jenny McCarthy, who insists that vaccines cause autism and that she was able to use a natural remedy to “cure” her child’s autism (if you’re wondering, there is no “cure” for autism). Or maybe they just feel that mandatory vaccinations are a “government overreach,” an intrusion into their private lives and personal choices–and they don’t want Obama telling them how to raise their kids. Ultimately, there are lots of rationales for making bad decisions, but it is a peculiarly Republican trait of prominent politicians to declare their solidarity with what most normal people consider to be fringe lunatics: vaccine denialists, climate change denialists, and creationists.

Lest we forget, one of the newly-Republican-controlled Senate’s first official acts was to pass two resolutions: one that supported the idea that climate change is real and a companion piece expressing doubt that it is anthropogenic. These resolutions have no real meaning other than to give us a sense of the direction that Congress is heading on this issue: nowhere. With prominent climate-change denier James Inhofe (R-OK) now heading the Committee on the Environment and Public Works, there is little to no chance that we will see any significant action from this august body on this grave threat to humanity’s continued survival. The impact of continuing to seek out new sources of fossil fuels in lieu of seriously promoting renewable energy sources that do not boost atmospheric carbon levels won’t be seen in a few days, months, or years like the impact of lots of paranoiacs refusing to vaccinate their children, but the effects will be even more dramatic: mass extinctions, rising sea levels, melting polar sea ice, diseases and pests appearing and thriving further north than ever before are just some of the consequences of inaction that we can look forward to.

Aside from looking like a bit of a relic from the Middle Ages, there aren’t many dire repercussions for not accepting biological evolution. The array of evidence for evolutionary theory is so diverse and compelling that you pretty much have to  toss out all of science as a whole if you choose to dispute it. Nevertheless there is a certain small demographic of true believers that Republicans feel they must cater to in order to get enough votes to get elected. It’s disheartening that in the 21st century we are still standing people for the highest office in the land who reject the scientific foundations upon which our modern society is built.

This story from NPR shows how the Republican candidates in the presidential primary responded to questions about climate change and evolution in 2012. Among this entire crop of presidential wannabes, only Jon Huntsman took the controversial position that evolution and climate change are real phenomena. It seems increasingly likely that we can expect a repeat performance for 2016. While many moderate Republicans have been quick to repudiate the more bizarre and unfounded assertions made in recent weeks regarding the safety of routine vaccinations, these two touchstones of conservative Christian outrage are not so easily dismissed by those who wish to survive the crucible of Iowa and New Hampshire. And so they will try to have it both ways, like our esteemed Governor Jindal, who took a break from releasing self-aggrandizing press releases critical of the president long enough to declare his support for the science behind vaccines; this is of course, the same Jindal who has long supported the Louisiana Science Education Act, which attempts to muddy the waters in public education surrounding the topics of evolution, climate change, and, for some odd reason probably known only to his puppet masters in the Louisiana Family Forum, human cloning.

Indeed, Paul at least appears to be trying to make political hay from his irresponsible statement that he knew of “walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” He later tweeted a picture of himself receiving a booster shot and remarked snarkily that he wondered “how the liberal media will misreport this,” implying that that eternal Republican boogeyman, the Liberal Media aka The Main Stream Media aka The Lame Stream Media, had somehow mischaracterized his own words. Paul, who loves to tout his credentials as a physician (ophthalmologist) on the campaign trail, knows damn well that his statement above was intended to imply causation not merely correlation and that the average layperson would interpret those remarks in just that way. It’s as cynical and naked a political ploy as anything I’ve seen in some time: he scores points with the vaccine denialists by throwing them a bone about autism and quickly disavows his own remarks by blaming those “misreporting” ne’er-do-wells, the Media, thereby currying favor with the more moderate elements of his party who are all for vaccines but definitely don’t trust reporters.

So all of this brings me to my point: how is Republican science different from science? Well, it’s necessarily incomplete because they hold science hostage to the interests of various factions from whom they are relying on some kind of largesse, be it votes or the money with which to buy more votes. Acceptance of anthropogenic climate change would displease the oil and gas companies that funnel billions of dollars of campaign contributions into the cesspit that is our political system. Acceptance of the fact of evolution would displease the voting bloc of archconservative Christians still convinced that a bearded man in the sky individually crafted them and brought the world into being ex nihilo 6,000 years ago. Acceptance of the fact that vaccines prevent outbreaks of highly-preventable but highly-contagious diseases. . . well, no matter what the shrill vaccine denialists screech about thimerosal and Big Pharma’s price-fixing, it’s getting harder and harder to justify that position in light of recent events.

Here’s the bombshell, once and future kings of America: science isn’t a country buffet, where you can pick what you’re comfortable with and fits with your preconceived notions or those to whom you owe some manner of allegiance. Governor Jindal, how do you think we understand that vaccines work? Use that Brown education. The answer is that we learned about the way that viruses and bacteria evolve in response to changes in their environments (yes, I said two “e” words in one sentence). I agree with one thing you said not that long ago: the Republican Party needs to stop being the “party of stupid.” Perhaps you could start leading by example. It would make a refreshing change.


Mid-term stupidity

They say you get the government you vote for. Or maybe the government that Americans for Prosperity pays for. I’m not quite sure how anyone can tell the difference at this point.

Well, congratulations, America. You put a Republican majority in the Senate, giving the Party of No and Fearmongering control of both houses of our bicameral legislature. In case you’ve somehow forgotten, this is what you’ve given a thumbs-up to:

1) More eboli scare-tactics (No, I’m not making “eboli” up; look up Darell Issa.)

2) More “we have to get them over there before they get us over here” scare-tactics pertaining to ISIS in Syria and Iraq (and, yes, in case you’re wondering, that means more pushing by chickenhawks to start a new ground offensive in the Middle East)

3) More meaningless attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act by the same people who brought you lies about “death panels” and skyrocketing premiums

4) More rejection of basing public policy and education on sound, well-supported science like global anthropogenic climate change and biological evolution

5) More promotion of policies based on trickle-down economics bullshit that was discredited 30 years ago when Reagan was pushing it

Here’s the government that you’ve abandoned all pretense of giving a shit about:

1) Prioritizing repairs of America’s aging transportation and utility infrastructures

2) Using #1 as a platform for promoting the growth of high-paying manufacturing, construction, and engineering jobs as opposed to seeing consistent growth of low-wage jobs in the service sector and calling that good economic news

3) Promoting sensible economic reforms to protect and preserve our natural resources

4) Reducing the burden of student loan debt, which is presently a significant drag on our economy and will be even more so in the future

On a local level, Louisiana has once again done a bang-up job of making itself look ridiculous. As a result of today’s Hunger Games, we now have this to look forward to:

1) More constitutionally-protected pieces of the budgetary pie, making hard decisions about fiscal matters even harder and likely to fall on the few chunks that lack constitutional protection (bits of health care and education, mostly)

2) Yet another race between Edwin Edwards and Generic Republican No. 37, in which many Louisianans will probably vote for Edwards because the alternative is another “toe-the-party-line” GOP congressman

3) A failed opportunity to start on the road to creating a financial infrastructure to aid local governments in paying for maintenance and repairs to our actual infrastructure

4) An extra inducement for legislators to create endless tax breaks and loopholes for corporations and special interests, aka more trickle-down BS

So, well done, electorate. Pat yourselves on the back and prepare for two more years of nonsense and non sequiturs.

Why Romney lost and why the Republicans still don’t get it

A lot has been written and said about the spectacular electoral failure of the Republican Party in the November election, and much of it misses the point. CNN and other broadcasters pontificated on their tables and interactive maps and talked about how the GOP lost women and blacks and Hispanics and young people, and all of these things are undoubtedly true but not all that interesting in and of themselves. The more salient part of this is why the Party of No not only flopped in its efforts to unseat an admittedly-divisive sitting president (just why he is so divisive is probably worth its own article), but lost seats in both houses of Congress, including races that were considered easy victories like Todd Akin’s challenge to Claire McAskill.

Ask 10 Republicans why this happened and you may get 10 different answers. Mitt Romney, suffering from an apparent bout of Aesop’s fox syndrome, sulkily declared that Obama must have “paid off the electorate.” He didn’t mean that literally–he meant that the president had promised those constituencies that didn’t vote red money or some other form of government largesse in exchange for his reelection. Slightly smarter or less bitter observers like Louisiana’s own Bobby Jindal or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker hastened to say that Romney’s reaction to his loss was a bit stupid and suggested that the true problem with the Party lay in its failure to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. Both of these men are, of course, playing to a national audience with these statements and it’s probably the worst-kept secret in politics that they have ambitions beyond governing a single state.

As others have pointed out, it’s worth paying attention to deeds as well as words. At home, Jindal has promoted an extreme social-conservative agenda that plays well to his base–and particularly the religious right–in this most crimson of states but which has been met with suspicion by moderates and independents. His recent push to put public funds in the hands of charter and private schools aligns perfectly with his previous efforts to dilute science education in the state with his Orwellian Louisiana Science Education Act. This is an important context in which to examine Jindal’s public proclamations, wherein he pays lip service to the idea of creating a more inclusive political party that embraces many groups–the so-called “big tent.”

The reality is that this is more empty rhetoric, because the GOP has continued to push an extremist agenda, even while giving the appearance of holding its more extreme elements at arm’s length. During the election, in a case of belated damage control, the national party stumbled over itself to distance itself from comments made by numerous Senate candidates who made abortion a central issue in the campaign by stating in various ways that their god had a hand in many terrible crimes against women; meanwhile, a similar policy statement is to be found on the official party platform and on the lips of its vice-presidential candidate (Paul Ryan is basically Sarah Palin, except that he actually did read all of the newspapers).  On the economic front, fiscal hawks like Speaker Boehner are taking a hard line against raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and are pushing the vague and ultimately meaningless trope of “tax code reform” that Romney was promoting as his “economic plan” during the election. This self-imposed “fiscal cliff” nonsense is the last gasp of the absurd “trickle-down economics” that  Republicans have been shoving down our throats for the last 30 years, and I hope they choke on it. The only thing that trickles down on the poor and the middle class when the rich get richer is the excrement that always rolls downhill.

Intellectual luminaries within the party suggested an alternate reason for why young people didn’t vote Republican. Bill Bennett suggested that liberals have taken over the public schools and indoctrinated America’s youth with pinko propaganda. He’s actually serious about this and it gets better. The prescription is to not to get rid of onerous and intolerant policies that drive people away the party in droves; it’s to take over schools and insert their own propaganda. It’s well worth taking a look at this film to see what Bennett and his followers have in mind.

This particular piece of idiocy just got cranked up to 11 this week in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. Congressmen Louie Gohmert of Texas and Dennis Baxley of Florida have actually suggested that the answer to mass shootings in this country is for people to have more guns. Perpetual carnival acts James Dobson and Bryan Fischer declared that their god had once again intervened to “allow judgment to fall upon us” because of abortion and gay marriage and because there is no state-sponsored prayer in schools. Sure, you can always count on fringe loonies to say things like this after children are gunned down at school, but here’s the kicker: Mike Huckabee, the guy who was almost the GOP’s candidate for president in 2012, was saying the same things. If the party leaders really want to know how they’ve gone so astray and why Americans don’t trust them anymore, nothing sums it up quite so succinctly as this.

Here’s a pro tip for Mr. Huckabee and the rest: your god doesn’t belong in public schools and your religion is not the only one in America. The amendment that goes at the top of the Constitution–# 1–declares that Congress shall make no law respecting religion. That’s the “establishment clause” and it means that government, including public institutions (like schools), are to be religiously neutral. I don’t suppose you’d be too thrilled if the kids were facing Mecca and praying to Allah on prayer mats in the public schools under the imam’s watchful eye. So go ahead and blame those of us who want to take guns off the streets, who want to protect women, who are gay, who believe you can be moral without gods; Democrats will continue to clean your clocks at the polls as we all vote against you.

And on a personal note, fuck you, you self-righteous assholes.

Breathtaking inanity in the Louisiana Legislature: May 26 Edition

The Senate Education Committee–or should I say “Education” Committee–strikes another blow for theocrats and Discovery Institute fellows everywhere with its “deferral” of Senate Bill 70 yesterday. A veritable host of speakers in favor of repealing the shameful Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008 were given their say, apparently because Chairman Nevers recognized that the bill was dead in the water. Zack Kopplin and several of his fellow students, retired science teacher and Louisiana Association of Biology Teachers President Patsye Peebles, a representative of the Sierra Club, LSUnited member Steven Rushing, education professor Dr. Ian Binns and many others voiced their displeasure with the LSEA and explained how it undermined science education and specifically biology education in the state of Louisiana. Senator Julie Quinn of Metairie badgered the bill’s author and the proponents of SB 70, asking whether there was evidence that creationism had been taught in science classes and whether the SB 70’s proponents would be in favor of legislation banning any discussion of religion in public schools. Quinn flouted her credentials as an attorney and when several of the speakers stated that they would be opposed to banning the discussion of religion in classes such as history, English, and social studies courses, crowed as though she had achieved some grand rhetorical triumph–all the while she insisted that people were refusing to answer her questions and that she was losing her patience. It was quite the obscene spectacle.

After the advocates of SB 70 had spoken, the chairman turned the floor over to advocates of LSEA, mostly proxies for Gene Mills like Darrell White and Dr. Wade Warren, Baptist and biologist extraordinaire (whose previous testimony in favor of the LSEA is dicussed here). I take back the benefit of the doubt I gave these guys in a previous article: they’re liars, plain and simple. There is no other explanation for their consistent repetition of statements that have been demonstrated to be false. White talked about how the bill clearly hadn’t harmed anyone and that there was so much controversy over evolutionary theory as demonstrated by Behe’s irreducible complexity. Never mind that he didn’t mention Behe by name and couldn’t even explain the concept cogently (referring rather than to Behe’s favorite flagellar example instead to “cells” as being overly complex). The rest of White’s discussion revolved around the same legal arguments he is fond of using in his all-too-frequent letters to the editor, as though he is somehow unable to comprehend that standards of evidence in the legal profession are not at all equivalent to standards of evidence in science. Warren spouted some ridiculous “academic freedom” argument, which is spectacularly irrelevant to a discussion about teaching at the elementary and secondary levels. As a student, kids don’t decide what goes into a science curriculum any more than they would have input into a math curriculum. Frankly, neither do teachers–they teach what is listed in the K-12 standards set up by each state. Why is “academic freedom” needed in public schools? It’s probably the goofiest of DI’s long list of ridiculous non sequiturs. The Louisiana Family Forum (which should just go ahead and change its name to the Right-Wing Theocratic and Fundamentalist Christian Agenda Pushing At All Costs Forum) speakers kept insisting that it wasn’t possible for someone to teach religion in science classes because of the LSEA’s language ostensibly prohibiting this (conveniently ignoring the fact that their Discovery Institute puppetmasters are trying to dress up their Christianity as science by claiming that IDC is not, in fact, a religious belief system).

To close out the testimony, author Senator Karen Carter Peterson gave an impassioned plea for her fellow senators to vote for the bill and against the dilution of science education in the state. Senator Peterson pointed out that in all areas except the ones where it appears to be convenient, legislators consult and side with experts in their fields: engineers are consulted on matters relating to roads and bridges, economists on monetary policy, but not scientists on proper approaches to science instruction. Then the chair opened the floor for motions and Senator Long of Winnfield promptly moved to “defer” (kill) the bill. Senator Dorsey of Baton Rouge objected to Senator Long’s motion and proposed a substitute motion to report the bill favorably (meaning that it is passed to the full Senate for a vote with the comment that the committee endorses the bill). Chairman Nevers then called for a vote and in less time than it takes for me to type these words, SB 70 was dead. The vote was 5-1 with only Senator Dorsey voting in favor of SB 70.

Reverend Mills and the Creationist Lie Machine

I’m putting the text of my response to the most recent complaint published in the op-ed pages of The Advocate today by the good Reverend Gene Mills, head of the Louisiana Family Forum and Defender of the Right (Wing). Here’s a link to the letter.

Here’s a link to the version of my rant below that was published in The Advocate on May 12.

Well, I do enjoy a good rant every now and then, and nothing is quite as entertaining as listening to a member of a majority group complain about conspiracies and oppression, which is why I took such delight in reading Reverend Mills’s diatriabe published on May 7. It appears those evilutionists are at it again, trying to keep the “good word” from students in
public-school science classrooms.

Let’s see what has Mr. Mills and the Louisiana Family Forum up in arms. He states that the Louisiana Science Education Act was passed by an overwhelming majority in the Legislature of 2008. As anyone who has observed politics in
this state for more than five seconds can tell you, a legislative majority does not imply that a statute is correct or appropriate. He further decries the mistreatment of his pet legislation in the media; see, he says, right here there is language that precludes the advancement of religion. Curiously, the Livingston Parish School Board has already brought up teaching actual old-school creationism in their science classes, using this law as a justification (see here: http://www.2theadvocate.com/news/99705064.html). Even if we didn’t have this bald-faced application of the intent, we know that the Discovery Institute, which has been shopping this model statute to any state legislature that will bite, exists to promote intelligent design creationism (which it claims is scientific). So, yes, if we redefine the terms
“science” and “religion,” I guess I could agree with Mr. Mills that the LSEA is clearly not “designed” to promote a religious
agenda in public school science classes.

I’m particularly fascinated by his next paragraph, wherein he mockingly refers to the “settled science” of anthropogenic climate change and something he refers to as “human embryo experimentation for research purposes.” Apparently, he is attempting to link the BP oil leak to what? Climate change? I’m pretty sure the investigative panels have concluded that corruption, collusion, shoddy oversight, and poor management practices were ultimately to blame for the accident which wrought untold damage to Louisiana’s coastal environment and killed 11 men. I’m guessing this must be one of the Right’s “blame Obama” strategies–stir people up against the repeal of LSEA by getting them worked up about the temporary deepwater drilling moratorium. It’s lame and obviously unrelated to the topic at hand. As far as “human embryo experimentation for research purposes,” I know of no such research underway. I believe Mr. Mills means “embryonic stem-cell research.” Is that what you and the DI mean by “human cloning”? Yes, it’s true that the federal government can now once again fund research into life-saving cures for genetic disorders of all kinds using embryonic stem-cells. Whenever I see religious people get worked up over a blastula I start to wonder why they don’t protest outside of fertility clinics, where unimplanted embryos are routinely destroyed.

Finally, he discusses the State-Times (defunct now for many years) as being on the side of the evilutionists trying to censor his ideas. Nobody’s censoring you, Mr. Mills. Obviously The Advocate publishes your many ill-conceived jeremiads. You’re perfectly free to shout about your Christian beliefs in your house of worship every week. But don’t try to sneak your back-door creationism into science classes, because people who care about the future of Louisiana will stand against you and you will lose.

I will add in this forum a few other things on this topic. We have seen editorials time and again by Mr. Mills and Mr. Darrell White of the LFF on this topic and one thing is abundantly clear: either these men have severe issues with a cognitive dissonance around the notion that they are promoting religion in science classes and that America is not a “Christian nation” or they are simply liars. The fact of evolution is not in dispute within the scientific community. Period. Many controversies may erupt in the primary literature (little if any of which I expect that Mr. Mills and his like could even understand, but maybe that’s being unkind) over the tempo and mode of evolution, philosophies of species concepts, appropriate methods of reconstructing biogeographical histories, the significance of neutral mutations, et cetera. But no one questions that life evolved, except in the context of a religious discussion. This fact has been illustrated on numerous occasions and in a variety of forums for the benefit of these men, frequently by Zack Kopplin and Dr. Barbara Forrest.

I find it particularly disingenuous of Mr. Mills to declare in his letter that the LSEA does not promote a religious doctrine. The statute was written with the express purpose of allowing discussion of intelligent design creationism in science classes, and intelligent design creationism is most assuredly not science. It’s nothing more than a belief system that if you can find something that you think is too complex to have evolved by mechanisms currently understood by science it must have been the work of a supernatural agent. But that’s a lie. Maybe you didn’t look hard enough, like Michael Behe, whose irreducibly-complex bacterial flagellum was easily shown to be functional with fewer parts that he described. Or maybe you just figured if you defined your terms to mean things unique to your discussion and used enough symbolic logic in your papers, like William Dembski, no one would notice that your “research program” is still just the attempt to poke holes in evolution that has been around since the days of Duane Gish and Henry Morris. The simple truth is that if there is a supernatural cause for a phenomenon that we can observe directly or indirectly, then it isn’t–it’s a natural cause that we hadn’t heretofore known.

There are a lot of unanswered questions in biology just as there are in all of the other scientific disciplines. If Mr. Mills and Mr. White really cared about the scientific education of the kids in this state, they would be encouraging those children to try to answer those questions, not to take the DI route of plugging any unknowns with the mystical G-factor. Intelligent design creationism, just like old-fashioned creationism, doesn’t do anything to advance human knowledge, and it’s time we put this absurd debate to bed, if only people like Mr. Mills would permit it.

Time to end Louisiana’s shameful pandering to the Discovery Institute and Louisiana Family Forum

When I think about how our current governor, an Ivy League graduate in biology, is willing to stoop to appeasing groups like the Louisiana Family Forum by gleefully signing the ironically-named Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008, it fills me with more than the usual level of shame and disgust as a Louisiana native. Fresh from their victory on Louisiana’s polluted soil, Discovery Institute carpetbaggers are hard at work trying to replicate their success in states like Florida and Tennessee this year. It’s time for people who care about science education to stand up to those who want to teach religion as science, and they can start by supporting Zack Kopplin’s efforts to get the LSEA repealed.

As Southeastern Louisiana University Professor Barbara Forrest has amply demonstrated, the LSEA is based on a Discovery Institute template, which the intelligent-design creationist organization is using to promote allowing science teachers to use “alternative” materials (such as the now-notorious Of Pandas and People) in biology classrooms when discussing evolutionary theory. The langauge in the Act itself shows its origins as a part of the social-conservative, anti-science agenda:

B.(1) The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, upon request of a city, parish, or other local public school board, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

(2) Such assistance shall include support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied, including those enumerated in Paragraph (1) of this Subsection.

C. A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

D. This Section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.

I’ve highlighted in red the parts of particular interest. The Act singles out ideas that the fringe right has particular issues with, largely for religious reasons. Evolution and the origins of life, topics frequently conflated in discussions of anti-evolutionary movements, are areas of scientific research that are offensive to some religious groups on their face because of the same tired creationist objections that have been around for 150 years: if species are not fixed and life evolved through a variety of forms since its inception, this flies in the face of a literal interpretation of Judeo-Christian religious texts. If it can be demonstrated that life on Earth had a natural origin, there is no need for a god hypothesis. “Global warming” or, to be more accurate, anthropogenic climate change harms conservative efforts to claim that either a) God gave us dominion over everything on Earth, so everything will work itself out; or b) any observable climate change is the result of natural cycling and so everything will work itself out. Human cloning, of course, is science fiction.

The second section is the heart of the Act: teachers can bring in non-approved “supplementary” materials to “discuss” and “critique” scientific theories. Well, again, only two of these items could be construed as theories in the loosest possible scientific sense: evolution and anthropogenic climate change. Board-approved course materials would undoubtedly present an accurate synopsis of the state of knowledge on these matters, except that it’s actually not very likely that all but the most recent textbooks are addressing the latter topic. So that brings us full-circle back to what this is really all about: watering down the teaching of biological evolution by allowing teachers who are of a mind to do so to “teach the controversy.” Of course, there is no scientific controversy regarding the validity of biological evolution. The real battle of these ideas, which was never a scientific one even when fought by partisans who were the preeminent natural historians of their day, was won by evidence well over 100 years ago. It is clear and demonstrable to anyone who cares to see and learn that organisms change over time and that the accumulation of changes leads to speciation and the science of phylogenetic systematics allows us to reconstruct the history of life over timespans of billions of years. These are simple facts.

The manufactured controversy over evolutionary theory has a long history. The early post-Scopes creationists were happy to misquote scientists, deliberately misinterpret scientific reports (or in some cases simply fail to understand them–it can be hard to tell), and enumerate various areas where we lacked specific knowledge of evolutionary pathways in order to bolster their claims that only a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible can provide a guide to the history of life on Earth. The neo-creationist movement wants to claim the mantle of science for its invented concepts such as “irreducible complexity” (the idea that a structure can only be reduced to a certain number of parts before it is rendered useless–an idea shown to be incorrect for biological purposes when one realizes that structures can be used for a variety of different purposes [biologists call this “exaptation”]) and “complex specified information”. William Dembski, the creator of the latter notion, is the new prophet of intelligent design creationism–the idea that life must have had a designer (read capital-G god) because it is too “complex” to have originated without one.

And this brings us to the third section. Because the IDCers hide their religious aspirations behind neutral language like “designer” they believe they can fool people into accepting that these are actually scientific arguments. As the Kitzmiller trial revealed, intelligent design creationism is just regular old creationism in a fancier suit.

My old boss in Quincy was fond of saying that Floridians named developments after the wildlife or ecosystems that were slaughtered or destroyed in creating them. The Louisiana Science Education Act does nothing to promote science education in Louisiana and is thus a bit like naming a housing development Piney Woods or (perhaps a better example) claiming that you are saving Medicare and Medicaid  by converting them from fee-for-service to voucher programs. If you don’t want your kids taught religion in a bad science costume or let yourself be bamboozled by these cheap misdirection tactics, contact your representative or senator and tell them to vote YES on SB 70, the repeal of the LSEA of 2008. Appallingly, Governor Jindal’s office has already stated that he will veto SB 70 if it passes, so we will need a veto-proof majority to defeat this ridiculous law.

Below are some links to related stories and information:

Ursula Goodenough’s article critiquing the concept of promoting “critical thinking” in these DI bills

Dr. Barbara Forrest’s in-depth analysis of the language in the LSEA

Zack Kopplin’s weblog with myriad articles on this topic, including lists of nationally- and internationally-renowned science educators and professors who oppose the LSEA and support its repeal

A new year bring new efforts by crazies to coopt government to advance their extremist agenda

Dr. Barbara Forrest has a new article at the Louisiana Coalition for Science page (here) wherein she discusses the Louisiana Family Forum’s 2011 agenda and relative scope of its funding versus her organization’s funding (none). While it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) surprise me that Gene Mills and his brethren are advancing a typically right-wing-wacko slate of ideas for the coming year, it’s nevertheless telling just how utterly anti-family it actually is. This is my favorite part:

Pass 2011 State Senate Redistricting Plan
Defeat any new taxes
Defend Life gains
Defeat homosexual adoption and marriage
Shrink size and scope of government

Three of these ideas are wholly secular in nature. Only two of the five have some basis is the so-called “social conservative” movement. So I guess the question is this: is being either a “fiscal conservative” or a “social conservative” a “family-friendly” position?

Let’s take a look:

1) Pass 2011 State Senate Redistricting Plan: Historically, redistricting has been used to gerrymander districts in favor of a chosen political party. People drew lines around white neighborhoods so Republicans would get elected or around black neighborhoods for Democrats. Louisiana has no choice but to redraw lines as the 2010 census has uncovered a substantial population drop, which means we are losing a seat in the House of Representatives and also we are required to reassess district lines for the legislature and a number of other bodies by law following the federal census. There is a Powerpoint presentation by the House which explains some of these factors here. I don’t know the true significance of the joining forces of an Opelousas-based black legislator and the Louisiana Family Forum to create an “equitable” plan that creates majority-black districts in various areas of the state, but I strongly suspect that this is part of some broader effort to ensure that more social conservatives are elected to the Louisiana Legislature. I can’t see the LFF putting its resources behind anything simply for sake of justice; it flies in the face of so many other things that the organization does. So is it family-friendly? I guess that’s the sort of thing that would have to be addressed in the context of whether “social conservatives” and their agenda truly represent something that makes American families stronger. I don’t think so, but I’ll have to push that question back until we’ve looked at the other items here.

2) Defeat any new taxes: This seems like a relatively-straightforward conservative position, a chestnut of those who still subscribe to the long-discredited notion that putting more money in the pockets of the already well-to-do will lead to economic growth and prosperity for all. What has this policy, having no new taxes and, in fact, repealing the Stelly plan, which reduced regressive taxes like sales taxes and increased progressive taxes (income tax) to compensate, done for the economy of the state of Louisiana? Well, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. While much of Louisiana’s trouble can be laid at the doorstep of other factors, like the collapse of the housing bubble (which was itself a consequence of the Bush administration’s “hands-off” approach to banking regulation), the bottom line is that lower taxes in the state means fewer pennies in the state’s coffers and draconian cuts to services, especially in a state whose constitution protects all areas of the budget but health care and education. Reduced health-care benefits and decreases in K-12 and higher education budgets are not “family-friendly.” Just as with the conservative Democrats and Republicans’ efforts to derail even a modest reform of the nation’s health insurance industry, the effort to promote decreased tax revenue hurts poor and middle-class families who need health-care services to survive and a quality education to thrive.

3) Defend Life gains: If you’ve hung around any of the religious wackos for even the briefest of periods, you recognize this as code language for ensuring that efforts by conservative legislators to curb abortion rights as much as is Constitutionally-permissible are maintained and advanced. Louisiana, which already had some of the most restrictive laws regarding abortion in the country, passed several new initiatives that must have had Mr. Mills dancing like an Ally McBeal baby in 2010. Naturally there was a law declaring that the state wouldn’t pay for any abortions as a result of the new federal health insurance reform; it was a pointless law because that procedure already wasn’t covered under the federal law, but hey, this is Louisiana! Then we had a law that made it easier for LDHH to shut down clinics that perform outpatient abortions when a violation is found on an inspection. (I could climb onto a giant soapbox about the Legislature granting DHH enforcement authority with teeth in this one tiny area of its regulatory authority and leaving the rest of its regs as toothless as a sparrow, but I won’t.) The third law excluded providers of elective abortions from medical malpractice coverage, because apparently conservatives love a good tort reform unless there’s fetuses involved. Finally, and most outrageously, a fourth law which requires a woman seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound of the fetus prior to having the procedure–and with no exemption for victims of rape or incest. This is a lot like saying, “I’m sorry you were viciously assaulted but before we can give you medical care to treat your wounds, you must watch this video of your assault.” I guess that sums up pretty well what the anti-abortion people really think of women. Women are and should be second-class citizens, subservient in their abilities and desires to men. So, I guess the answer to this one really depends on how you define a family. Is a family a hierarchy wherein the dominant figure of the man acts as the stand-in for the deity and his word is absolute, while the wife and children exist to serve him? Is a family a partnership between two spouses who may also choose to raise children?

4) Defeat homosexual adoption and marriage: Here’s an awesome hot-button issue–lettin’ the queerosexuls marry. It makes for really bitchin’ bumper stickers like this and this. But what does it really mean? It means two people love each other enough to want to make a lifetime commitment of monogamy and faithfulness. Apparently this idea somehow degrades the commitments of other people because this specific pair happens to be of the same gender. Also, kids love orphanages–it’s right there, in the Bible!

Okay, lest you think I’m just blowing off the whole “gay adoption” thing with a snarky remark, see this report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Pay close attention to # 2. But go ahead and read the whole thing; it’s pretty interesting.

5) Shrink size and scope of government: We made it to # 5, again looking like a core conservative “value.” So what could possibly be wrong with shrinking government? Well, I could start by referring you to #2, above. And I will. Frankly, there is nothing pro-family about reducing government services, and that’s really what we’re talking about here. This state has embarked on a crusade to strip its government to skeletal tatters in the name of keeping taxes low and expecting employees to do the impossible: provide the same level of service with no resources.

People are fond of quoting Ronald Reagan as saying that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are–I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Government has historically been a conservative boogeyman of the highest order–a nameless, faceless bureaucracy that forces you to spend money and takes away your liberties to feed its neverending hunger for wealth and power. There are people–lots and lots of them–who really see government this way. It doesn’t really occur to them that governments at all levels provide a variety of services that the majority of Americans are physically or fiscally incapable of providing for themselves. Governments build and maintain roads, provide for fire protection through hydrants and the maintenance of fire departments; provide law enforcement services through a variety of professionals including park rangers, sheriff’s deputies, detectives, laboratory technicians, military police, wildlife enforcement agents, border patrol agents, city and state police officers, FBI personnel, et cetera; protect and maintain the commons; create and maintain public utilities such as roads, highways, ferries, bridges, public water systems, public wastewater treatment systems, and drainage canals; create and sustain cultural enhancements like public parks, history and natural history museums, zoological gardens, and botanical gardens; fund research in a variety of subject areas through NSF and NIH grants; train and educate children through the K-12 public school system and public colleges and universities; segregate dangerous elements of society in prisons; protect food supplies and ensure the safety of manufactured drugs and other consumer goods through an assortment of state, local, and federal agencies; protect citizens from foreign enemies by maintaining a standing army (along with other branches of the armed forces).

That’s not a comprehensive list, of course. However, I think my point is made. Governments are not the enemy of the people; government is a tool of the people to accomplish many things that we can do collectively but would be unable to do as individuals. There is this weird sort of Wonderland notion that floats around conservative circles that if you simultaneously cut the taxes that fund government and cut government workers, equipment, and other resources that you can somehow still come out with an equivalent end-product to that with which you started. The fact is that nobody can really do more with less; it’s called a paradox for a reason. Moreover, the implicit assumption that government is essentially 99% fat and 1% meat is simply wrong–there are real limits to which governments can be cut without causing real harm to people. Just ask the people whose family members died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion or the Salmonella outbreak in 2009.

This brings me back to the point of #1. Does the Louisiana Family Forum actually represent and promote “family-friendly” positions? Is the social-conservative agenda one that strengthens and enhances families? This agenda is typically colloquially known as the three “G”s: God, gays, and guns. All of these threads share a common weave: the paranoia that government is taking away your rights and your ability to be protected from the other, whether that other is a sinister agent of the regime, a creepy queen, or a militant atheist. At its root, it is an agenda of fear and hate. People who have some form of religious belief have always been a majority in this country and they almost certainly always will; gays are not out to steal your children and pee on your marriage certificate; and the Zionist cartel isn’t waiting for the right moment to swoop in and take the pistols and rifles from your family’s gun cabinet. The Bizarro-world in which these things could happen exists only in the minds of the true believers of the religious right.

Mixing religion and politics is dangerous under the best of circumstances, and it is for precisely the reasons that Mr. Mills has shown us. While the rights of all individuals, including the many people who are not Mr. Mills’s co-religionists are supposed to be protected by our state and U.S. constitutions, at the end of the day it is simply too easy at the state level for conservatives to decide that their religious agenda is a “one-size-fits-all” solution to our woes. We are told that abortion and homosexuality are “sins” and the legislature restricts them accordingly. Global climate change and evolutionary theory don’t conform to Biblical notions of Man having dominion over the environment and each individual being “specially created” and endowed with a soul by god, so we get the ironically-named Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008.  I really don’t mind people getting together in small groups or large groups to talk about their imaginary friends on Sundays; I’d just prefer it if they didn’t do it in our Legislature. The Establishment Clause does grant us freedom from religion just as surely as it grants us freedom of religion. If the Louisiana Family Forum could or would understand and accept this idea, perhaps they would cease trying to turn this state into a theocracy; then again, if that were ever to happen, the LFF would probably have no raison d’etre.