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Recent Reading

  • Susan Jacoby: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

    Susan Jacoby: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
    Excellent overview of the prominent role that freethinkers (atheists, agnostics, and deists) played in America's past, including the founding of our country, the abolition of slavery, and giving women the vote. (*****)

  • Sam Harris: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

    Sam Harris: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
    One of the most frightening books I've ever read. Among numerous other topics, Harris argues that it is almost inevitable that atomic weapons will fall into the hands of religious radicals -- if not terrorist, then perhaps a nation with religious radicals in charge. (****)

  • Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

    Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion
    Highly recommended. Despite what you might have heard, Richard Dawkins does not spew venom in this book. Flames do not shoot out when you open it, nor does bile drip from the pages. Far from being an hysterical, rabid diatribe against religion, it is a quite measured, logical explanation of the evidence against God and why religion should not be treated with such reverence. (*****)

  • Daniel C. Dennett: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

    Daniel C. Dennett: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
    I highly recommend this book for anyone who is about to embark on studying religion and atheism. Why do people enjoy music? Why do we like to socialize? Why do we sometimes become violent? Science has attempted to answer each of these questions. Dennett proposes that science attempt to answer another: Why are people religious? Even if one of the religions is true, that still means that billions of people believe religions that are not true. Why? What is it about our evolutionary past that makes us willing to believe? (*****)

  • Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

    Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
    Why wasn't Europe invaded by ships carrying gun-wielding Native Americans or Africans, rather than the other way around? This is an excellent explanation of why some societies became quite advanced, while others remained primitive. (*****)

  • Richard P. Feynman: "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character

    Richard P. Feynman: "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character
    Very entertaining and thought-provoking collection of anecdates from the life of perhaps the best-known physicist of the 20th century. (****)

  • Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack S. Cohen: The Science of Discworld
    You'll have to visit Amazon UK to locate this one. This book explains science concepts by comparing them to the decidedly different physical laws of the Discworld series. (****)
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Creationism and Evolution

January 30, 2007

HMS Beagle replica project

The year 2009 will be the 200 anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. These people are building a working replica of the HMS Beagle, the ship Darwin sailed on when he made his observations that eventually lead to him developing the theory of evolution by natural selection. The replica Beagle will recreate that voyage around the world.

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January 25, 2007

Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Joe Alston to Retire

I received an email from Tom Martin of River Runners For Wilderness that pointed me to a news release announcing the retirement of Grand Canyon Superintendent Joe Alston. Superintendent Alston is the person who had ordered the removal of the bronze plaques at the canyon overlooks, had tried to block the sale of the creationist book in the canyon bookstores, and was apparently the one who responded "no comment" when asked by the LA Times reporter about the age of the Grand Canyon.

Is it purely a coincidence that he's retiring in early February, or is this somehow all related to the brouhaha surrounding the PEER news release? Is he leaving because he's ready to go, or is he being pushed? These are probably questions that we'll never know the answers to.

Link: GC Announces Alston's Retirement - RRfW
Link: Joe Alston hangs up flat hat after 31 years - NPS (PDF)

Update: In case you missed it earlier, PEER's blog now includes a post addressing the controversy.

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January 23, 2007

False Gods and False Worries: Lessons from the PEER Grand Canyon Fiasco

In a way, Christians should be flattered by objections from secularists. I'll explain in a bit. But first, a minor digression. (Yes, I'll eventually get around to talking about PEER and the Grand Canyon.)

You've read the ten commandments, right? (Or perhaps you read the other ten commandments.) Do you remember the very first commandment? The first commandment states, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Since it's the very first commandment, that would imply that it's probably a pretty important one. Luckily, that's an easy commandment to keep, right?

Apparently not. Basically, Moses comes down from the mountain, says "here are the 10 commandments", goes back up the mountain to talk to God some more, but stays up there too long, so the children of Israel decide to worship a golden calf created by Aaron, the brother of Moses.

And these are God's chosen people? Hmm...

Okay, so apparently not worshiping other gods is a very difficult commandment to keep. It seems rather easy for me, since I don't worship even one god, but apparently for many people this was a tough one, so God made it commandment number one. Perhaps that's why Christians get so upset when they see other religions getting treated with something approaching fairness.

On the other hand, as an atheist, whenever I hear stories about gods of other religions, they seem like old fairy tales. Greek mythology, for example. You've heard the stories -- Zeus, Apollo, etc. We even studied them in school, if I remember correctly. Norse mythology was even better. I always liked the Norse god Thor with his hammer that created thunder. A thunder hammer sounded really cool!

In the same way, Hindu and Native American religious stories sound to me like harmless fairy tales that nobody takes seriously. I don't think of them as religious. Remember the uproar in June 2005 when the Tulsa Park and Recreation Board ordered the Tulsa Zoo to install a Genesis creation story exhibit? The rationale was that, since the zoo's Elephant Encounter Museum had a statue of Ganesha, a Hindu deity that has an elephant's head, then it was already promoting one religion and should allow the Christian viewpoint to be presented.

If I had visited the Tulsa Zoo and had seen the statue of Ganesha, I don't think it would ever occur to me that I should object, even though as an atheist I believe in Ganesha no more than I do in the Christian God.

Eventually, after all of the publicity, the board reversed its decision, realizing that having one small statue in an exhibit that included a stuffed Dumbo elephant and a Republican Party elephant could not be reasonably interpreted as promoting the Hindu religion.

(Incidentally, Dan Hicks, the man who objected to the statue of Ganesha was also the driving force behind a 1995 effort to get the Tulsa Zoo to remove or modify their evolution exhibit. I believe this photo depicts that exhibit, although it may have been modified since then.)


Tulsa zoo evolution, originally uploaded by cpurrin1.

Similarly, when I visit a national park and the information they present to me includes Native American myths, I think of those as being historical or cultural rather than religious. So, for example, the bookstore at the Grand Canyon sells books which include Native American creation myths, and this generally gets no attention from atheists like me.

Yet when the National Park Service approves for sale at the Grand Canyon the book Grand Canyon: A Different View by Tom Vail -- a book which claims that the Grand Canyon was formed by Noah's flood -- we sit up and take notice. More than that, we object to such a blatant injection of religion into our national parks.

Why is that? How is the sale of a book about a Christian belief different than the sale of a book about a Native American religious belief? In a public school classroom, how is teaching a Christian belief different than teaching a Norse or Greek religious belief?

In the case of the Norse and Greek myths, the explanation that immediately leaps to mind is that those are "dead" religions. I might be wrong, but so far as I know nobody believes in Zeus or Thor these days. (Well, I'm sure that somewhere somebody does, if only to be contrary.)

But what about the Native American religious beliefs? Well, "nobody believes them anymore" is also the first thought that pops into my head, but it takes just a moment's thought to realize that this isn't true. There still are significant numbers of Native Americans who believe at least some of what their ancestors believed. For example, some Native Americans believe that their ancestors were created in North America. (Some members of the Havasupai tribe believe specifically that the Grand Canyon is the birthplace of humans. Being told by researchers that the DNA evidence indicated otherwise was quite upsetting.)

Still, when I see a Native American religious belief presented in a government setting, I don't feel threatened the way I do when I see a Christian belief presented in the same setting. Is that just because, living in Illinois, I have virtually no contact with Native Americans and thus am not used to thinking of their beliefs in anything other than historical terms? Perhaps. (Too many "cowboy and Indian" movies, I guess.)

But I suspect the main difference is that Native American beliefs are held by a tiny minority with very little political power, while Christian beliefs are held by a sizable majority with enormous influence. In the same way that a commercial monopoly, such as Microsoft, has to play by different rules that are more restrictive, perhaps a religious monopoly, such as Christianity in the U.S., should play by more restrictive rules. Seeing those Christian beliefs displayed in a government setting, such as in a bookstore in a national park, feels potentially dangerous.

But is it? Is my initial reaction (Native American myths are harmless; Christian myths are dangerous) the correct one? Or are they both equally harmless -- or equally dangerous?

I blogged earlier about PEER's news release about the National Park Service and the age of the Grand Canyon. Since then, things have gotten a bit complicated, as it came out that PEER had perhaps exaggerated a bit in their news release.

When I began writing this post, I was just going to pass on the correction. This was shortly after I had written a post in which I discussed having been misled about Medieval religious dogma concerning the shape of the Earth, so I figured this was another opportunity to make a reference to hilzoy's post at Obsidian Wings, called Hatred is a Poison.

However, as I looked into things more, I realized how complicated this all had become. In an attempt to provide some context, here is a timeline of the sequence of events:

  • Sometime in the 1960s or 1970s (nobody knows exactly when), bronze plaques bearing Psalm verses, donated by the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, were posted at 3 Grand Canyon overlooks.
  • In 2002, "National Park Service Geologic Interpretive Programs: Distinguishing Science from Religion", a pamphlet for interpretive staff which labeled creationism as lacking any scientific basis, was blocked from publication by "Bush appointees". (It's unclear at what level this was done.)
  • In February 2003, the ACLU sent a letter to Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Joe Alston asking why the bronze plaques were present on government buildings.
  • In May 2003, the ACLU sent a follow-up email about the plaques.
  • After consulting with the National Park Service Regional Director and some legal staff, Superintendent Alston ordered that the plaques be removed and returned to the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary.
  • There was a public outcry.
  • In July 2003, National Park Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy sent a letter to the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, asking for the return of the plaques so that they could be reposted pending further review of their status. They did so.
  • In July or August 2003, the National Park Service approved for sale the creationist book Grand Canyon: A Different View by Tom Vail. The book was located in the natural history section of the bookstore. Out of 23 new items submitted for approval in 2003, this is the only one that received approval for sale. Superintendent Alston tried to block the sale of the book, but National Park Service headquarters overruled him.
  • In response to the brouhaha that resulted, the National Park Service said that there would be a high-level policy review of the decision, which they hoped to complete by February 2004.
  • In December 2003, a letter protesting the decision and signed by the presidents of seven scientific societies was sent to the National Park Service. Those signing it were the presidents of the Paleontological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the Association of American State Geologists, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, the American Geological Institute, and the Geological Society of America. It got no response.
  • Also in December 2003, PEER issued a news release discussing the return of the bronze plaques and the sale of the creationist book. The news release also noted:
    • "Park Service leadership has blocked publication of guidance for park rangers and other interpretative staff that labeled creationism as lacking any scientific basis." (emphasis added)
    • "The Park Service is also engaged in an extended legal battle to continue displaying an eight-foot-tall cross, planted atop a 30-foot-high rock outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve in California."
    • "[U]nder pressure from conservative groups, the Park Service has agreed to edit the videotape that has been shown at the Lincoln Memorial since 1995 to remove any image of gay and abortion rights demonstrations that occurred at the memorial. ... The Park Service has promised to develop a 'more balanced' version that include rallies of the Christian group Promise Keepers and pro-Gulf War demonstrators though these events did not take place at the Memorial."
  • In January 2004, a memo from the head of the National Park Service's Geological Resources Division stated that selling the book violated agency policies. It got no response.
  • In February 2004, a letter was drafted to be sent to some members of Congress, stating that the review would be completed in March 2004. The letter was never sent.
  • Time passed.
  • In June 2004, a revised version of the February letter was sent to some members of Congress, framing the issue as a free speech and freedom of religion question and stating that a high-level policy review of the decision was being conducted.
  • Time passed.
  • In October 2004, PEER issued a news release, PARK SERVICE STICKS WITH BIBLICAL EXPLANATION FOR GRAND CANYON. It noted that the promised review had never happened and that the creationist book was still being sold in the Grand Canyon bookstore.
  • In November 2004, Time posted Faith-Based Parks? by columnist Leon Jaroff, which discussed the issues described in PEER's news release. Near the end of the article is this sentence: "Even more troubling, PEER charges that Grand Canyon National Park no longer offers an official estimate of the age of the canyon, and that the NPS has blocked publication of guidance intended for park rangers that reminds them there is no scientific basis for creationism." (This is puzzling, because the October 2004 news release from PEER doesn't appear to claim this, so it's unclear where Leon Jaroff got this information.)
  • At some point (I've been unable to find out exactly when), Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times apparently contacted Grand Canyon Superintendent Joe Alston while writing a story. When asked for an official statement on the age of the canyon, Alston apparently gave a "no comment" and referred of the reporter to NPS headquarters. Note that Superintendent Alston is the person who ordered the removal of the bronze plaques and tried to block the sale of the creationist book. Therefore, it seems likely that his "no comment" was a reflection not of his personal beliefs, but rather a reflection of his conflicts with NPS headquarters.
  • At some point (it's unclear when), the creationist book was moved from the "natural history" section to a new "inspiration" section in the online version of the Grand Canyon Association's bookstore.
  • On December 28, 2006, PEER issued another news release, HOW OLD IS THE GRAND CANYON? PARK SERVICE WON’T SAY.
  • This was picked up by numerous blogs, including the Skeptic News, as well as by James Randi's Swift, Michael Shermer's eSkeptic, Bob Park's What's New. Where I initially saw it was at Full-Frontal Skepticism in a post titled Age of Grand Canyon classified G14 Top Secret. Like others, my interpretation was that PEER was saying that National Park Service staff had been ordered not to state the age of the Grand Canyon. What an outrage!
  • On January 4, the Sacramento Bee published an editorial about the issue.
  • A few people noted that the Grand Canyon web site listed the age of the Grand Canyon, while others said that park rangers denied being prohibited from giving the age of the canyon.
  • Michael Shermer contacted PEER in an attempt to clear up the issue and got some less than candid responses.
  • PEER posted an amended version of their December 2006 news release, downplaying (but not removing) the implication that park rangers were prohibited from stating the age of the Grand Canyon.
  • On January 10, Shermer posted an article about his attempts to clarify the issue with PEER.
  • On January 16, 2007, PEER posted a news release which omitted the implication that NPS staff were prohibited from stating the age of the canyon.

So what happened? How did PEER get the idea that NPS employees were under orders to not state the age of the Grand Canyon? I think the answer is that there is a tiny kernel of truth in the claim -- but it's very tiny.

Because the original news release has been modified, it's difficult to go back and parse exactly what it said. (Strangely enough, even the website where I originally read the story, Full-Frontal Skepticism, seems to have disappeared in the last few days. I don't know whether the controversy caused the blog to fold or if it's just a coincidence.)

The December 28 news release originally began like this:

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

"In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is 'no comment.'"

In a letter released today, PEER urged the new Director of the National Park Service (NPS), Mary Bomar, to end the stalling tactics, remove the book from sale at the park and allow park interpretive rangers to honestly answer questions from the public about the geologic age of the Grand Canyon. PEER is also asking Director Bomar to approve a pamphlet, suppressed since 2002 by Bush appointees, providing guidance for rangers and other interpretive staff in making distinctions between science and religion when speaking to park visitors about geologic issues.

I believe, but can't check to be certain because it is no longer available, that this paragraph came from the original version of the December 28 news release (all emphasis added by me):

At the same time, Park Service leadership has blocked publication of guidance for park rangers and other interpretative staff that labeled creationism as lacking any scientific basis.  As a consequence, NPS staff has no official guidance as to how to answer questions from the public concerning topics such as creationists' "young earth" claims. Further, media inquiries to the Grand Canyon superintendent seeking an official statement on the geologic age of the Canyon have produced replies such as "no comment" and referral of the reporter to NPS Headquarters.

This is a reference to an updated version of the long-stalled pamphlet for interpretive staff titled "National Park Service Geologic Interpretive Programs: Distinguishing Science from Religion". The superintendent mentioned is presumably a reference to Superintendent Joe Alston, who had earlier ordered the removal of the bronze plaques after being contacted by the ACLU and who had tried to block the sale of the creationist book. The "media inquiries" mentioned apparently refers to the contact by Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times, who had covered the story earlier.

That, I suspect, is the tiny kernel of truth. Unfortunately, what grew from this seed was an extremely misleading falsehood.

In a sense, the National Park Service was not telling park rangers to reject the Noah's flood story, because the NPS had blocked the publication of a pamphlet for the rangers that would have done just that.

So, we have two facts:

  1. The NPS has not issued guidance to their interpretive staff about how to answer questions about the age of the Grand Canyon.
  2. The NPS superintendent declined to answer a reporter's question and referred her to headquarters.

If you wanted to interpret these in the worst possible way, then you could claim that the NPS has no official position on the age of the Grand Canyon. It's a stretch, but I suppose you could argue that.

Then you could argue that not telling rangers to reject the flood story is the same thing as telling rangers not to reject the flood story. You could argue that, but you would be wrong.

Going from that to the claim that the NPS was ordering their rangers to not answer questions about the age of the Grand Canyon stretches the truth beyond the breaking point.

I've been a fan of PEER for a few years now, regularly reading my father-in-law's copies of their newsletter (although I haven't yet joined myself). This incident has been quite disappointing.

I think I understand why it happened, and it's a danger that I've tried to to avoid when writing about paranormal and pseudoscience topics (or even politics). Here is what can happen:

You're making an argument in favor of or in opposition to some position. You have point #1, which is rock solid and very convincing. You have point #2, which is also rock solid and very convincing. And you have point #3, which again is rock solid and very convincing. But you can't leave it at that, so you throw in point #4, which is somewhat shaky.

The opposition zeros in on point #4, exposes its flaws, and soon it is shown to be wrong. "No problem," you think, "because points 1, 2, and 3 are still rock solid and very convincing."

But you're wrong. The controversy over point #4 has completely distracted everyone from points 1, 2, and 3. And when your point #4 was shown to be wrong, it made everyone doubt points 1-3. You've lost the argument.

Another part of the problem, I think, was the desire for the news release equivalent of a good sound bite. "Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees." That grabs the attention of the reader in the very first sentence! But it's also, at best, extremely misleading. PEER can debate about whether it is technically true, but if they have to explain to people why what they said isn't a lie, I think it's safe to say that their news release didn't achieve the desired effect.

Okay, so enough about PEER's exaggerated claim. Let's turn our attention to the claims which are true -- so far as we know. (See what one untruth can do to your credibility?) A creationist book is being sold in the Grand Canyon bookstores, bronze plaques containing Psalms are displayed on canyon overlooks, and a pamphlet for interpretive staff addressing the conflict between science and religion has been delayed for more than 4 years.

First, the book. Some have pointed out that the bookstore is operated by a private, non-profit organization, the Grand Canyon Association, not by the National Park Service. Therefore, the argument goes, there is no issue of church-state separation.

While it is true that the Grand Canyon Association is a separate entity, what it sells must be approved by the National Park Service. So, if you wish, the question isn't whether the Grand Canyon Association should sell the book, but is instead whether the National Park Service should approve the sale of the book.

Aside from the legal issue of separation of church and state, the reality is that I think most people would assume that books being sold in a national park's bookstores are being sold by the national park. We recognize that McDonald's is a separate entity, so we're not misled by its presence in a national park. A non-chain bookstore, on the other hand, can easily be mistaken for being an official part of the park.

Another argument made is that the book is being sold in the "inspirational" section of the store, so there's no implication that it is real science. This apparently wasn't always true, and it's unclear at this point whether it is true today. At least in the online version of the Grand Canyon Assocation's bookstore, the book originally was being sold in the "natural history" section. It later apparently became the only item in a new "inspirational" section. When I check the online store now, however, the "inspirational" section is missing and the book doesn't appear to be located in any of the categories. (When did that happen?) However, the book is still available if you check the alphabetical list of all books or if you do a search for "different view". Unfortunately, I have no idea where the book is located in the physical bookstores.

So, is it acceptable for the National Park Service to approve the sale of a creationist book?

This takes us back to the fact that books containing Native American myths are being sold there. Is it reasonable to allow the Native American myths while banning the Christian myths?

Let's imagine it's a thousand years in the future, in the year 3007. Christianity has pretty much died out and few people take it seriously anymore. Would a book relating the old myth that Noah's flood created the Grand Canyon be appropriate then? I think the answer would definitely be "yes". Of course, the book probably would not be sold in the "science" or "natural history" section.

Since Christianity in the U.S. is a near-monopoly religion with enormous power, things are more complicated than that.I can see valid arguments for both sides of this issue.

I think that I'm willing to accept the sale of this book in Grand Canyon bookstores so long as it is in a section that is clearly separate from the real science books.

Second, the bronze plaques. On the one hand, they've been there for 30-40 years. On the other hand, just because something has been inappropriate for a long time doesn't mean that it isn't inappropriate. The reality is that 30-40 years ago, atheists were quite reluctant to speak out. Times have changed. It's time for the plaques to go.

Third, the pamphlet. Answering religiously-charged questions is difficult. I suspect that park interpretive staff would be thankful for any guidance they could get. If the National Park Service is uncomfortable addressing these issues, imagine how uncomfortable the front-line staff must be. Publish the pamphlet!

Okay, so now we've come to the part where I again point to a post by hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, Hatred is a Poison, which begins with this quote from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis:

"Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?"

Finally, if you're wondering, "hey, how old is the Grand Canyon?", here's the answer from the National Park Service's Grand Canyon National Park web site:

The oldest rocks at the canyon bottom are close to 2000 million years old. The Canyon itself - an erosional feature - has formed only in the past five or six million years.

So now you know.

Update: PEER's blog now includes a post addressing the controversy.

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January 12, 2007

Flat out wrong! Medieval Dogma and the Shape of the World

A couple of months ago, I got an iPod for my birthday. All the kids are doing it these days, and with the 2-year-old having control of the stereo, it seemed like my best option for listening to something more challenging than Laurie Berkner. Don't get me wrong, Laurie is great, but how many times can a grown man listen to "We are the Dinosaurs" without going nuts? Well, more nuts.

After installing iTunes, converting hundreds of albums to AAC format from WMA format (okay, I was foolish), and loading them into the iPod, I turned my attention to podcasts.

I had heard mentions of podcasts numerous times in the past and I understood the basic idea. Someone records a show and makes it available over the Internet; you download it to your iPod and listen to it. Simple. However, since I didn't have an iPod, I didn't pay much attention. After I got an iPod, I looked into the matter some more -- and learned that you don't actually need an iPod to listen to them. Oh sure, now you tell me! For anyone out there who is under the same misimpression that I was, all you need is a way to play MP3 files. Windows Media Player on your PC will do just fine.

Anyway, so I poked around the iTunes store and found several related to skepticism. My favorite so far has been Logically Critical, particularly the episodes Live! From the Realm of the Dead and Vintage Monsters, both of which are extremely funny.

But that's not what this post is about.

This post is about a point raised by Derek in an early episode of Skepticality, "the official podcast of Skeptic magazine". I feel like I'm required to say that last bit, almost like it's part of the full name of the podcast. (The intro to this post was just to explain why I'm writing about a podcast that was first broadcast more than a year and a half ago. I'm a bit behind the times.)

In the episode for May 14, 2005, "Flat Earth, Private Property, Sweden...", Derek objects to the claim made by atheists that Medieval Christians believed that the Earth was flat. This, Derek said, was a false claim that was perpetrated by atheists and still exists today. One example he gave of how this myth persists was the book The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin.

This caught my attention because a couple of years ago, I gave a presentation to our local skeptics group about this very subject. The title of my talk was "Medieval Dogma and the Shape of the World". One of my main sources of information in preparing this talk was The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin.

What the...? Had I fallen for a bit of bad information? I immensely enjoyed reading The Discoverers. It was an extremely interesting topic to me and was well-written. But was it also wrong? Or was Derek the one who was wrong?

So I began searching on the Internet to find the answer.

In his book, Boorstin didn't claim that people still believed the Earth was flat at the time of the voyage of Christopher Columbus. However, he wrote that for around a thousand years, 300-1300 AD -- the Great Interruption, he called it -- "Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers." I had found that part of the book particularly amazing. But was it true?

In my initial searches of the Internet to find the answer, the first sites I checked that addressed the issue were those coming from an obviously pro-religious perspective. Had Derek fallen for some pro-religious propaganda? Sorry, but I generally don't consider the Discovery Institute or William Dembski to be reliable sources of information.

However, I eventually located The Flat Earth: A Detailed Study of Personal Bias and Historical Thinking at the Ethical Atheist. In this article, the author explains that, sure enough, it is a myth that the belief in a flat earth was widespread in Medieval times (at least among the educated). This article was particularly interesting because it was a revision of an earlier version of the article which had reached the opposite conclusion!

The question is not whether people once believed that the earth was flat -- they definitely did. The question is when did they accept that the earth was a sphere. More specifically, when did Christians come to this view, since the issue is the role that the church played in opposing scientific advances that conflicted with the bible.

The question also isn't whether the church opposed some scientific advances -- they definitely did. Specifically, the church opposed the idea that the earth was not at the center of the universe and that the earth moved. Everyone is familiar with what Galileo went through.

I think it is also safe to say that an objective reading of the bible would indicate that the authors of the bible believed that the earth was flat. For example, Isaiah 40:22 states, "It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth." Many Christians will claim that "circle" doesn't actually mean "flat and round" but instead means "sphere". I think you would only reach that conclusion if you start from the basis that the bible can't be wrong, so therefore it must mean something other than what it appears to mean.

But as to the question of when did most (educated) Christians and the Christian church hierarchy come to accept that the earth was a sphere, the answer appears no later than somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 AD. In any case, it was long before the 1300 AD time period that Boorstin's book stated.

So what happened? How is it that Boorstin (and others) got it wrong? Well, for a full explanation, I highly recommend reading the Ethical Atheist's The Flat Earth: A Detailed Study of Personal Bias and Historical Thinking, as that goes into plenty of detail about the whole subject.

Now I have to figure out how to correct the misinformation that I passed along in my earlier talk. Should I give another talk to explain where the first talk was wrong? Certainly. When I'll get the time to do so is another question, given the aforementioned two-year-old. It's been awhile since I read The Discoverers, so I'd need to read the relevant portions again to figure out which bits were wrong. Oh bother! In the meantime, hopefully this post will help to correct some of the misinformation. (Of course, if it turns out that Boorstin was right and the Ethical Atheist is the one who got it wrong, then I'll have to post a correction to this correction!)

One of my favorite blog posts is one written by hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, Hatred is a Poison, which begins with this quote from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis:

"Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?"

I always try to keep that in mind as I evaluate the various claims and counterclaims that I read about various paranormal, pseudoscience, religious, and political topics. I think it's quite relevant here.

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December 29, 2006

Park Service Ordered Not to State Age of Grand Canyon

You have got to be kidding me! This is unbelievable. If there wasn't a link to the PEER article about it, I would think it was a hoax from The Onion:

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

“In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is ‘no comment.’”

Unbelievable. I just can't wait until the 2008 presidential election. Regardless of who is elected next, they'll have to be an improvement over Bush. (Right?)

I've been a fan of PEER for quite some time (and, being a public employee myself, I really ought to have joined by now). Generally they've been active in exposing political manipulation of environmental data and so forth. This whole Grand Canyon thing just takes it to a new level. I think it's time for me to get out my checkbook and write a couple of checks -- one to PEER and one to whichever candidate I think will role back the ludicrous policies of the Bush administration.

(Hat tip to Full-Frontal Skepticism)

Link: Age of the Grand Canyon classified G14 Top Secret
Link: How Old is the Grand Canyon? Park Service Won't Say

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Creationism Is Known by Many Names


Creationism renaming contest, originally uploaded by cpurrin1.

Ha! The same person who posted the human evolution mural on Flickr also posted this image, which I found quite amusing. I'm going to have to roam through the rest of his images and see what else is there.

Link: Creationism renaming contest

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Burned Human Evolution Mural


Human evolution mural, originally uploaded by cpurrin1.

I had posted yesterday about the burning of the evolution mural made by Zach Strausbaugh, a former student in Dover. I located this image on Flickr, so we can see what it looked like.

Follow the link to read the text on the Flickr site, which provides some links to additional ideas for evolution murals.

Link: Human evolution mural

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December 28, 2006

Barbara Forrest on Kitzmiller v. Dover

Via The Panda's Thumb, I found this article by Barbara Forrest that nicely summarizes the Kitzmiller decision.

My jaw dropped open when I read this bit:

In August, a mural depicting human evolution, painted by a 1998 graduating senior and donated to the science department, disappeared from a science classroom. The four-by-sixteen-foot painting had been propped on a chalkboard tray because custodians refused to mount it on the wall. Spahr learned that the building and grounds supervisor had ordered it burned. In June 2004, board member William Buckingham, Bonsell’s co-instigator of the ID policy, told Spahr that he “gleefully watched it burn” because he disliked its portrayal of evolution.

That's just bizarre! There's just something about religion that seems to make some people lose all sense of right and wrong. I'm wondering how the former student who painted it felt about it when he heard the news. Hopefully he at least has a picture of it.

If anyone manages to find a photo of this mural online, I'd like to see it.

On a completely unrelated note, this reminds me of the story of what happened to the last dodo. After its death, it was stuffed and put in a museum. After a time it was put in a storeroom. Eventually the head of the museum had it burned. As a result, we now don't even have a stuffed dodo, much less one that's living.

And speaking of dodos, is anyone going to be attending a showing of Flock of Dodos Official this Darwin Day?

Well, enough with that tangent. Go read about Kitzmiller!

Link: The “Vise Strategy” Undone.

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Opposing Creationism vs. Opposing Religion

There has been a fair amount of discussion recently about whether evolution and religion are compatible. Or, perhaps more to the point, whether we should oppose religion by pointing out the evidence against it that evolution provides or whether we should promote evolution by pointing out that there is nothing in evolution that precludes the existence of a Creator. As is often the case, I'm of two minds about this, as is Skepchick sraiche.

On the one hand, I think that evolution definitely is in conflict with a literal reading of the bible. It also seems to get along just fine without the existence of a Creator. On the other hand, I know that some people would be perfectly willing to accept evolution if they could be convinced that it wasn't a threat to their religious beliefs.

In reading Freethinkers, I was struck by the repeated examples of the conflicts between the hardliners and the compromisers in several political conflicts — the abolition of slavery, gaining women the vote, etc. In each case, the compromisers eventually won.

This led me to think that perhaps compromise is the best way. But then I read a blog entry recently on Pharyngula in which PZ Myers was discussing NARAL seeking to moderate its position in an attempt to attract moderates. PZ Myers was opposed to this, stating that it was proper for a politician to compromise, but not for an advocacy group. The goal is not to move to the center, but to move the center.

Link: Memoirs of a Skepchick - Unbunching My Panties (?)

Link: Pharyngula - The full-throated howl of the uncompromising advocate

Link: TAPPED - The Freedom to be Vilified

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How Wrong Do Creationists Claim that Evolutionists Are?

Richard Dawkins has an article on the Guardian's comment is free web site. Dawkins explains how massively wrong mainstream science must be for Old Earth Creationism to be correct.

"First, the age of the Earth. McIntosh thinks, on biblical authority alone, that it is less than 10,000 years. We establishment fuddyduddies think, using mutually corroborating evidence from many sources including several different radioactive isotopes in the rocks, that it is about 4.6 billion years. I shall not say here why I think we are right and McIntosh wrong. Instead, I shall simply calculate the magnitude of the difference between the two estimates. We of the "establishment" think the Earth is 460,000 times older than McIntosh's estimate. It is as though McIntosh estimated the height of a man as 6 feet and then accused the rest of us of believing that the same man was 460,000 times as tall, or 521 miles. Or, looking the other way, it is as though McIntosh looked at the establishment geographers' measurement of the distance from New York to San Francisco and claimed that the true distance from sea to shining sea was 460,000 times smaller, namely about ten yards. Maybe McIntosh is right and all the rest of us wrong. All I have done here is calculate how spectacularly wrong we would be, if McIntosh is right."

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