Monday, November 29, 2004

 

Capitol Days

From the Texas Home School Coalition:

During each morning session [of Capitol Days], THSC representatives, legislators, and legislative staff members educate attendees about the legislative process and train them to lobby. Each month, there will be different speakers and topics, depending on the current issue of concern for Texas home educators. In the afternoon, students, parents, and chaperones will head to the Capitol to meet and lobby legislators and then reconvene for a debriefing (sharing and feedback) session.

Don’t miss these opportunities for great political science field trips!


 

banned books

The Texas ACLU and Texas Library Association have created website on books banned in Texas public schools.
 

Van Till In Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith

Howard van Till is one of my favorite spokespeople against Intelligent Design. Howard is an astronomer who is the author of the book The Fourth Day, what the Bible and the Heavens are Telling us About the Creation (reviewed here). Prior to the development of Intelligent Design, Howard was a steadfast critic of Young Earth Creationism and he's been in the trenches against ID practically since its inception. He has criticized ID on a theological basis as a form of episodic creationism and thus a god-in-the-gaps theological position and he has made specific criticisms of assumptions underlying Bill Dembski's explanatory filter.

His latest foray appears in the December 2004 issue of PSCF, the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, a fellowship of scientists who are Christian. There is an article exchange in this issue. First James Madden and Mark Discher, philosphers and theologians discuss ID, van Till responds, and Madden and Discher respond to van Till's comments.

Without going into great they said-he said detail, here are a few points that I found interesting in the exchange. Discher and Madden seem a bit out of touch with the stated goals and rhetoric of the ID movement. They criticize some ID proponents - notably Michael Behe - for (they say) going beyond trying to detect the presence of design in nature and to posit that a designer might exist, while commending him for not making claims about the attributes of the designer. Their view is that there is no warrant for the existence of a designer because the existence of design might be consistent with interventionist creationism (a designer), Aristotelian forms, or atheistic panpsychism, which they describe as fundamental particles purposefully taking particular states (I don't get it either, but they cite Mary Midgely and Thomas Nagel as examples of the idea).

Two points on this. First, depending on the venue, ID proponents do or do not identify the designer. When they go in front of the Texas State Board of Education they are quite coy and do state that the designer could be anyone, little green men even. But the ID proponents who go on Hank Hanegraff's radio show overtly state that the designer is the Christian God, see also Phil Johnson _Reason in the Balance_ and Chuck Colson _How Now Shall We Live_. The reason why they shy from identifying the designer is that they know that it is inappropriate and unconsititutional to teach creationism in public school and they want to smear evolution proponents with the epithet of misleaders when evolution proponents call ID a creationist program. The reason they shy from describing the designer is not in respect for the concept that they don't have a warrant to describe the designer just because they demonstrate design.

Secondly it is precisely the failure to discuss the designer that constitutes one failure of the ID program. It gets circular. How can you detect design without considering the intent of the designer and how can you consider the intent without considering the identity?

Van Till aptly notes that the non-interventionist creationist options that Madden and Discher offer, in the context of the ID movement in North America, are "radically unacceptable on theological grounds, leaving divine interventionism as the only attractive option available for serious consideration. It is in the light of this reality that I see ID and compensatory, hand-like, supernatural action as effectively constituting a package deal" (emphasis added).

Madden and Discher get to the heart of the matter when they note that the value of ID is to serve as a "materialism-defeater" thus opening biology up to an interdisciplinary program in which philosophers, theologians, and biologists all work; to their credit, they admit that this interdisciplinary program would be beyond empiricism. Way, way beyond. I appreciate their frankness in making this statement. While it is true that ID proponents want to change the rules of science, they are frequently not so frank about this goal. Rather they state that they simply want "more science" to be taught or the "weaknesses" of a particular theory to be taught. So it's refreshing to see the cards out on the table.

Stepping back from their argument for a moment, they appear to consider some basic assumptions of science to be unseemly. Frequently in modern science it may be unclear how exactly something works or why it reacts the way it does. There are a few methods of attacking the problem (1) try to study it (2) try to study systems like it (3) let it be a mystery for the moment and study what you can, such as how it reacts with other objects. Basically, letting "I don't know" be an acceptable answer. And yes, methodological naturalism does dictate that whatever scientific explanation you posit for the "I don't know" situation, it's gotta be testable and it's gotta be a natural cause. Madden and Discher find this unattractive. They consider this "promissory-note materialism" and state that one is warranted in rejecting it for ID until materialistic Darwinian natural selection (yes, folks, they do commit that error of considering natural selection as the only factor in the evolutionary account of biology) provides a complete accounting for biological complexity. Big words for "the argument from incredulity is ok." Well. It's not as though scientists claim to be able to explain everything. I think they are also hung up on some apologetics stuff, in that they fail to distinguish between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism and appear to consider these positions as hostile to theism.

Anyway, van Till makes a few nice points I would like to just quote.

The ID movement's success as a 'materialism defeater" is wholly dependent on its ability to make a scientific case. If that scientific case cannot be made, however, then the movement has no basis whatsoever for asking that the concept of "intelligent design" be presented as an alternative to mainstream science's understanding of bioltic evolution in a pubic(sic, how embarrassing) school science classroom. Public school board members and legislators need to know this.
(Emphasis in original).

Yes, and they need to know that when Discovery Institute was asked point-blank in Texas last November if they were seeking to put ID in the textbooks and why not, they said they were not because it had not been productive as a scientific endeavor. Bill Dembski stated a little over two years ago, "We have done amazingly well in creating a cultural movement, but we must not exaggerate ID's successes on the scientific front." And ID's scientific breakthroughs since that time have been less than stellar. Possibly the time that the ID heavy hitters have been spending lobbying Boards of Education to include "weaknesses" of evolution in the curriculum could have been spent in the lab instead.

ID theorists are now unable, and will necessarily remain unable , to reach a computationally warranted conclusion any more forceful or specific than this: In the absence of a detailed and causally specific scientific account of the particular sequence of natural processes and events that can fully explain the formational history of formational history of biotic system X, it is logically permissible to posit that the actualization of X required at least one instance of non-natural action. That is certainly true, but the logical permissibility of positing a religiously attractive, non-natural explanation in the context of incomplete knowledge is a weapon far too weak to defeat (or even bruise) naturalism of any type.


This is important. Just because it's logically permissible doesn't make it true or scientifically acceptable. There is much more to empirical science than a simple logic game. And I have to give you the footnote, because it's a classic:

A few thousand years ago, in the absence of knowledge about electrostatic discharge, and in the context of religious beliefs held by polytheisitic cultures, it was both logically permissible and religiously attractive for some people to posit that lightning required the direct action of a divine agent. In the long run, however, a belief that is both logically permissible and religiously attractive remains vulnerable to defeat by knowledge based on empirical science. Lightning, we now know, is an electrical phenonomenum.



 

This bandwagon's big enough for three

Jack Stick also filed an election challenge last week. Thus, the house will be dealing with three election challenges involving Republicans seeking to void or reverse the results of their election due to alleged voting irregularities (Stick, Eric Opeila, and Talamdge Heflin).

I have two thoughts: first, I don't advocate ignoring voting irregularities or counting illegal votes. However I have concerns about a partisan body resolving questions of fact regarding the evidence of those voting irregularities. It's a given that political parties have a vested interest in the results of a partisan race - that's why there were paired observers at the count of the Heflin/Vo absentee ballots, why the officials deciding the status of those ballots were paired, and even though the election judge who resolved conflicts was Republican, based on some of the comments to Charles Kuffner's blog, Democrats who attended felt that he presided over the process fairly. Once these challenges are in the House, the majority party has no obligation to include the opposing party in anything but the final vote. Thus there is a potential for abuse by the party in control - this was true in challenges that occured while Democrats controlled the Legislature, and it's true today.

In the accounting world our professional standards require us to be independent in certain cases and to maintain objectivity always. But, here is the kicker: part of independence and objectivity is that we are held to a higher standard than actual independence and objectivity. We also must maintain the appearance of independence and objectivity. Here's an example. Accountant audits a company that rents space from accountant. Peer reviewer looks at the situation, notes that it is permitted, but says, discontinue the arrangement because it has the appearance of impairing independence. Sound unfair? Let's consider why the profession became important. In the wake of financial scandals in the 1920's and 1930's, public companies were required to provide assurances to investors by independent, competent professionals that their financials were properly stated. Hence the extra-squeaky-clean-higher-than-high bar. Because if investors lose confidence in the independent accountant's report, they'll take their marbles home and keep them under the mattress. That is bad news for all the companies seeking capital, not just the dishonest ones.

I believe the principle that the process should not only be fair, but also appear to be fair holds true in the electoral system, only bigger. This is because we accept government and its attendant controls on our behaviour because we consider it legitimate. We consider it legitimate because we believe that the process is fair. Whatever the House ends up doing, in the end if the voters consider that the process was unfair, we'll all suffer in terms of increased citizen distrust and dissatisfaction with the political system.

On a side note, I was interested to see what Tom DeLay's independent opponent for his congressional seat had to say about Heflin's challenge (letter to the editor in today's Houston Chronicle):

He should ask Gore
State Rep. Talmadge Heflin lost by 32 votes and is now wanting a new election. But he should talk to Al Gore.

If Gore can be required to accept his loss to George W. Bush in 2000 by 537 votes out of millions without a new election, then Heflin should do the same. Or do we accept results only when our side wins?

If this is where the Republicans are going, they need a new direction before democracy falls off the edge of the cliff.

MICHAEL FJETLAND
Sugar Land


Friday, November 26, 2004

 

20/20 on Matthew Shepard

GLAAD and the Shepard family have published a guide with "10 questions" about the 20/20 episode rehashing the Shepard murder. I don't watch TV, most of it is trash as far as I am concerned. It saddens me that 20/20 would air this piece, give the murderers this soapbox, when the plea agreement - which took the death penalty out of the sentencing picture - specifically prohibits them from discussing the murder with the press. Brutally murder a young man and rub the family's face in it, very nice going. ABC, this is not your finest moment.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

 

New books

Stephen Donaldson has released Runes of the Earth, the first of the last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

Terry Pratchett has released Going Postal, in which a man has the difficult choice of managing Ankh-Morpork's post office or being hanged.

We discover the origins of the great rift between House Atreides and House Harkonnen in the latest book in the Legends of Dune series. Some short stories filling in gaps between the Butlerian Jihad and the Battle of Corrin are available for download.

All three of these books are available at the Houston Public Library.

Still waiting for:

The sequel to Shelters of Stone and Drive to the East, the second book in Harry Turtledove's Settling Accounts series.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

 

& I thought my precinct was small

I live in an itty-bitty precinct that was carved out of a republican precinct, I heard because there were too many democrats in my immediate area. But that's neither here nor there.

I was looking at the canvass report for the SD 149 race and I find that in precinct 283, which has zero (0) registered voters (per the county clerk), 10 people voted: 9 for Heflin, 1 for Vo.

I find the map for precinct 283, and it's even itty-bittier than my precinct. Heck, I didn't know anyone lived there! (It's businesses all along that stretch of road.)

Voter registrar doesn't show any streets, voters, anything there using the street search tool and when I attempted to get the list of voters there were no records.
 

The sword-rattling ends, the challenge begins

Heflin announced his plans to file an election challenge this morning.

There is one other Republican who is definitely filing a challenge and one who is considering it. So, potentially a total of three Republican election challenges this year in the Lege (I expect Heflins' will be the most divisive).

From the article, the challengers are:
AUSTIN - Two Republicans defeated Nov. 2 will submit paperwork today asking the GOP-majority Texas House to throw out official vote tallies and name them winners of their respective races or force new elections, advisers predicted Tuesday.

A third defeated candidate, Republican Rep. Ken Mercer of San Antonio, will decide by today whether to join the others in contesting his 498-vote loss to Democratic challenger David Leibowitz, his campaign manager said.


Now, the San Antonio paper states that the Texas House can give the challengers the seat. They cannot. What they can do is seat the certified 'true' winner (essentially, dismiss the contestants complaint) or void the election and direct the gov to call a special election. The true winner determined by determining whose votes are illegal, bringing them in and making them swear under oath who they voted for, and subtracting the votes from the appropriate candidate's total.

The citations are basically election code sec 221.012 & 241.020

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

 

Reasons to monitor your local school board

In Wisconsin, scientific theories other than evolution (specifically, Intelligent Design, which Ken Miller has aptly characterized as (paraphrased) a collection of half-baked objections to evolution) to be taught in Grantsburg schools.

In Dover, PA, teachers will refer students to the Intelligent Design book, Of Pandas and People (reviewed here by historian of science Richard Aulie.

(Thanks to Talk.origins' Jason Spaceman for the clippings.)

 

well, duh

Talmadge Heflin has finally filed for a recount in the State Representative race for District 149. His challenger, Hubert Vo, won by 32 votes. Since Heflin said Wednesday, November 3, that with such a small margin (at that point 110, or maybe 52, the margin changed a couple of times) "there will be a recount", my question is: What took him so long and what was all that sword-rattling about a challenge about?


Saturday, November 20, 2004

 

Fun Fair Positive Soccer (FFPS)

We are wrapping up our fall FFPS season. I coached my daughters' (7 year old and 10 year old) teams. It was a hard season, harder than the spring season because of time constraints, but this soccer league is so wonderful participating is always worth it.

FFPS philosophy is that the primary goal is for the kids to have fun and the secondary goal is learning the game. Accordingly FFPS has modified rules and procedures. For example, the field is smaller, the players play five to a side, no instruction from the coaches or parents is permitted during games, no negativity from parents or coaches (berating children, telling them "run, "go here", "go there") is permitted. We tell the parents to stick with "go, good, great, nice." and never, ever start or escalate something with another parent. They sign agreements at the beginning of the season that they will abide by FFPS rules.

The teams are balanced according to players' abilities and they are rebalanced every season. All teams are co-ed, and there are teams formed up through teens. There is a wonderful substitution system. The objective of all these procedures is that all the kids play, every position, every game, and the games are between evenly matched teams.

This league is superlative. I can't say enough nice things about it. I would encourage parents to look into the league, Spring 2005 season signup starts February 15, season starts April 5, 2005.

Friday, November 19, 2004

 

Heroes of Public Education

I will be speaking this Sunday, November 21, 2004, at the Unitarian Fellowship of Houston. The topic is Heroes of Liberal Education. Or Public Education. Or TH Huxley, whose genius and compassion never ceases to amaze me. Or something like that. Should be fun. The adult forum occurs from 10-11 and the service begins at 11.

Update: I have composed my remarks. One of the great themes that Huxley and Horace Mann both highlight is the concept that the social benefits we have now, we inherited from our forebears. What we do with them is our legacy to our decendants. This has implications for education, envirnomental policy, fiscal policy; really everything we do. We can take a short-sighted view that says our purpose in this life is to accumulate our own wealth (which we naturally got entirely through our own effort) and to keep it and pass it on to our lineal decendents. I would submit that this is the prevailing view of modern-day conservatives; at least that is what I can discern from their policies and rhetoric. We can take a longer-term view that we have received a leg-up from the collective efforts of the society that begat us, and we have an obligation to increase its collective wealth and well-being so that the next also has the benefit of that leg-up.

Here are some of Huxley's comments that got me thinking along those lines (taken from a book of aphorisms] selected by his wife and published posthumously):

CCLXXXIII [C. E. ix 230]
I cannot speak of my own knowledge, but I have every reason to believe that I came into this world a small reddish person, certainly without a gold spoon in my mouth, and in fact with no discernible abstract or concrete "rights" or property of any description. If a foot was not set upon me at once, as a squalling nuisance, it was either the natural affection of those about me, which I certainly had done nothing to deserve, or the fear of the law which, ages before my birth, was painfully built up by the society into which I intruded, that prevented that catastrophe. If I was nourished, cared for, taught, saved from the vagabondage of a wastrel, I certainly am not aware that I did anything to deserve those advantages. And, if I possess anything now, it strikes me that, though I may have fairly earned my day's wages for my day's work, and may justly call them my property–yet, without that organization of society, created out of the toil and blood of long generations before my time, I should probably have had nothing but a flint axe and an indifferent hut to call my own; and even those would be mine only so long as no stranger savage came my way.


So that if society, having, quite gratuitously, done all these things for me, asks me in turn to do something towards its preservation–even if that something is to contribute to the teaching of other men's children–I really, in spite of all my individualist learnings, feel rather ashamed to say no. And, if I were not ashamed, I cannot say that I think that society would be dealing unjustly with me in converting the moral obligation into a legal one. There is a manifest unfairness in letting all the burden be borne by the willing horse.



 

DemocracyFest 2005

From My Vote is My Voice:

"DemocracyFest '05 will be held in Austin, TX on June 17th-19th. Mark your calendars now! ... For more information on DemocracyFest '05--including proposed agenda andlodging info, please visit <http://myvoteismyvoice.com/Texas/index.html> "

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